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Panama Elects President Vowing Shutdown of Key Routes to U.S. Used by Over Half a Million Migrants

Jose Raul Mulino. AP
Jose Raul Mulino. AP

By: Jason Hopkins, Daily Caller News Foundation

A tiny Central American country’s new president-elect is vowing to shut down a key corridor heavily used by migrants to enter the U.S.

Panamanian voters on Sunday elected center-right candidate Jose Raul Mulino as their new leader. The president-elect has notably vowed to shut down the trails used by hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants that run through the Darien Gap, a vast jungle region that sits across the Panama-Colombia border, and return them back to their home countries.

The 64-year-old lawyer was elected on a largely conservative platform, pledging to run a pro-private enterprise, pro-investment government and a crackdown on drug cartels, according to Bloomberg.

“The border of the United States, instead of being in Texas, moved to Panama,” Mulino said on the campaign trail, according to the Guardian. “We’re going to close the Darien and we’re going to repatriate all these people.”

Panama has served as a pivotal transit country for migrants beginning their journey in South America. More than half a million migrants crossed the Darien Gap en route to the U.S. in 2023, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

That number was double the nearly 250,000 migrants that crossed in 2022 and a significant increase from the few hundred who would cross annually a decade prior. While most of the migrants that cross the Darien Gap are Venezuelan nationals, others come from Ecuador, Haiti and also Africa and Asian countries.

With more than 90% of the votes tallied, Mulino held roughly 34% of the vote, a clear plurality over the 25% carried by nearest rival Ricardo Lombana, according to Bloomberg, and he is now due to assume office on July 1.

The number of illegal immigrants crossing the Darien Gap is expected to beat last year’s record, Juan Pappier, the Americas deputy director at Human Rights Watch, said to the Guardian. Given the first few months, the number could be as high as 700,000 or even reach 800,000 in 2024.

Mulino’s presidential victory and vow to close the gap are happening as the U.S. is months out from a presidential election, where illegal immigration has become a top concern among voters. The U.S.-Mexico border has experienced record-setting illegal migration under the current administration.

Since President Joe Biden took office, at least 6 million encounters have taken place at the southern border.

It remains to be seen how Mulino can effectively stop the flow of migrants through Panama.

Pappier framed the idea of shutting down the Darien Gap to be “virtually impossible“, given the rough terrain and dangerous drug cartels that have a presence in the region, according to the Guardian. Other experts have questioned whether Mulino is simply saying something American leaders want to hear, given the relative indifference Panamanian citizens actually have for irregular migration at the moment.

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