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Panama's Non-Action to Secure Darien Gap Frustrates Mexico's Nearshoring Ambitions

The Darien Gap, a remote jungle between Panama and Colombia, is a dangerous route for migrants seeking to cross into the US. In 2023, 520,000 migrants crossed this area, double the number in 2022, with many fleeing Venezuela. The crossing is also used by migrants from other continents, including a significant number of Chinese men. The journey is fraught with risks, including criminal organizations, and has led to a humanitarian crisis, with migrants resorting to desperate measures to survive including exchanging sexual favors to survive. Mexico faces increased pressure to address this issue due to its special relationship with the U.S. and Canada and codified roles in the USMCA framework.


Dozens of migrants, including children, cross the rugged terrain of the Darién Gap


The remote, roadless, and dense jungles of the Darien Gap stretch about 160 kilometers (i.e., 100 miles) along the border between Panama and Colombia. The region is the only break in the Pan-American Highway spanning from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina and Chile.


The Darien Gap plays a significant role in permitting illegal border crossings into the United States because it is one of the few land routes for migrants traveling from South America to North America.


The Darien Gap is considered a no-go zone and is plagued by criminal organizations, including drug and human trafficking groups. The notorious gap is known for its dangerous geography, which includes mountainous rainforests, swamps, and rivers, as well as threats from venomous snakes, jaguars, and infectious diseases like malaria.


Illegal Crossings Through The Darien Gap On The Rise


In 2023, a record 520,000 individuals made the difficult and dangerous journey through the Darien Gap to reach America, more than double the number reported having crossed in 2022. Five years ago, the number of crossings was in the tens of thousands.


A 2022 Gallup poll found that a third of Latin Americans would like to move permanently to another country and a third of those picked the United States.


The individuals crossing the Darien Gap are often from South Africa, in particular from Venezuela which is suffering under the reigns of an authoritarian left-wing leader. But they also are coming from other Continents and fly into Quito, Ecuador, where there are no visa requirements, and then move overland into Colombia.


According to Will Freeman, Latin American fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations:


"Fifty percent of this whole phenomenon is explained by Venezuela... We’re seeing the consequences of Venezuela’s economic and political meltdown. It really started to happen about 10 years ago and hit Latin America hard but no one in the US noticed. Now it’s rippling out.”

The largest number of new illegal crossers are from China, according to data compiled by Panama's government. Lourdes Garcia, a worker at a refugee camp in Panama, says his camp was receiving, "more Chinese and Afghans, some Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Vietnamese and fewer Venezuelans... A lot of Asian nationalities come this way."


 

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Most of the new migrants from outside Latin America are Chinese men, and some in the trenches point out they are of military age. The Chinese migrants often go a different route and stay in different camps. Reporters alleged the Chinese migrants are the most hostile and least willing to talk to reporters, which doesn't make sense if the motive was to flee economic hardships and oppression from the CCP to find greener pastures. Other categories of migrants are generally friendly and willing to share their stories and perspectives with the international media.


Human traffickers and smugglers made $820 million in 2023 alone trafficking people through the Darien, according to Panama's security minister Juan Manuel Pino. Nearly a quarter of Darien crossers last year were children according to official statistics.


The plight of crossers who run out of money often involves exchanging sexual favors to survive according to an anonymous humanitarian worker. She said, "local people offer money in return for sexual favors, ”Sex for survival is very much in evidence... which is logical because if they have robbed you in the jungle, you arrive without money, hungry and dehydrated and then you have to pay for a canoe ride... how do you get that money?”


Panama's Inaction to Contain the Darien Gap


Panama residents are not happy with the massive influx of migrants pouring through their country and habitats, but they have seemingly no control over the matter.


The Panamanian border is supposed to be controlled by the SENAFRONT, which stands for the Servicio Nacional de Fronteras de Panama, and is the local military/police entity charged also with securing the border. SENAFRONT is controlled by the Panamanian government, so technically the Gap could be made orderly if there was a will from the government to do so.


The inaction at the Darien Gap likely has to do with the consequences that would accrue to Panama if it took action. The international actors who want this migration to occur are too powerful for Panama to resist. From Panama's perspective, the best option is to shunt the migrants northward is quickly as possible so the burden they place on Panama are kept to a minimum.


Impacts on Mexico's Nearshoring Ambitions


The surge in illegal crossings through the Darien Gap has significantly impacted Mexico's nearshoring ambitions.


Mexico is a key player in the USMCA framework and is under pressure to address this issue to maintain the integrity of its trade and economic relations with the United States and Canada. Thus far, Mexico's federal government has done little to nothing to assist and the challenge is made more untenable for Mexico by the record flows of migrants through the Darien Gap.


A scheduled 2026 sit-down by the USMCA members will address this thorny issue and towards the top of the agenda. Failure to reach an agreement could lead to automatic termination of the USMCA within two years, according to terms in the original USMCA agreement.

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