To stop migrants, the border between Panama and Colombia is militarized

1,200 immigration agents, border police and members of the naval air service will patrol the region with U.S. helicopters

The path of immigration to the United States has many directions. But one of the busiest is the one that passes through the Darien Gap. An area of swamps, rivers, and inhospitable jungle that lies between Panama and Colombia.

Although the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, repeats over and over again that the doors of the United States are not open, economic misery, insecurity and natural disasters continue to motivate thousands to attempt the journey towards the American Dream. which for many implies having to travel through the extremely dangerous Darien Gap. Last year, around 250,000 migrants.

The Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia. PHOTO: NS

Border Militarization

But now the Panamanian government, with the backing of the United States and Colombia, has decided to act. More specifically, the Panamanian Security Minister, Juan Manuel Pino, is organizing the “Shield Campaign” which, as the name suggests, is the militarization of the eastern border of the Central American country.

These are not social workers, medical personnel or NGO advisers, but about 1,200 immigration agents, border police and members of the air-naval service who will patrol the region with helicopters of US origin for at least two months.

The objective is to interrupt the migratory flow by confronting the transnational criminal organizations that operate in the region. One of these organizations is a Colombian armed group, the Clan del Golfo, which according to the head of the Panamanian Border Police is not only involved in human trafficking, but also in the drug and arms business.

Minister Pino affirmed that, based on intelligence work, three maritime routes and two land routes have already been identified where a large part of the smuggling between Panama and Colombia is concentrated. With the resources now available, the security forces intend to concentrate operations on those areas.

Unsustainable numbers

The situation is increasingly critical. In 2021, there were approximately 133,000 migrants who passed through the Darien Gap. The following year a record was reached: a quarter of a million. They come from Haiti, China, Ecuador and many other countries, but the majority are Venezuelans.

The United Nations warned that, considering that 170,000 migrants had already crossed in the first quarter of 2023, projections suggested that this year around 400,000 would pass through Darien.

That is why Secretary Mayorkas visited Panama in April to negotiate an agreement involving the two Latin American countries. A statement was issued at the meeting stating: “Recognizing our shared interest and responsibility to prevent risk to human life, disrupt transnational criminal organizations, and preserve vital rainforests, the governments of Panama, Colombia, and the United States have the intention to carry out a coordinated two-month campaign to address the dire humanitarian situation in the Darien.”

A myopic strategy

The authorities assure that the migrants will simply be informed about the reality of the US immigration process so that they avoid a trip that, for the majority, will not end with their entry into the United States as falsely promised by the traffickers.

But despite all the good intentions that may exist on the part of the authorities, this strategy that seems to want to solve the very complex problem of migration through the militarization of the border (in this case, the Panamanian border) generates many doubts.

To involve armed soldiers, who are trained for war, in the immigration issue and to put them in a context in which they must interact with men and women whose only “crime” is wanting to escape poverty and insecurity, is a short-sighted and potentially dangerous strategy. It only lends itself to the abuse of civil rights.

Furthermore, using the excuse of criminal organizations to justify military operations that, ultimately, will end up being containment and repression measures against migrants, sounds like Orwellian disinformation. What in essence are economic, social and political problems cannot be solved by force.

This article was supported in whole or in part by funds provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library and the Latino Media Collaborative.

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Co-editor of HISPANIC LA, and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at Rio Hondo College, Whittier, CA.

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Néstor Fantini

Co-editor of HISPANIC LA, and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at Rio Hondo College, Whittier, CA.

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