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Panama Rules Out Normalizing Jungle Route to US

Panama’s government ruled out Friday regularizing the passage of illegal migrants through the inhospitable Darien jungle, a border area with Colombia where at least 60 people died of the more than 240,000 who this year took that route on their way to the United States.

“The Darien jungle is not going to be a regularized route,” Panamanian Foreign Minister Janaina Tewaney said during a meeting with journalists on Friday.

“In that space, between the border, there are crimes of all kinds, because it is not a safe route, there are those who insist that it is, but it is not,” insisted the minister in explaining her government’s decision.

“We are not going to consider any route through the Darien, on the contrary, the measures that will be taken are to protect the Darien jungle, not to normalize a route that should not be normalized,” said Tewaney.

The Panamanian official met this week in Washington with the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to analyze possible measures to contain the flow of people crossing the dangerous jungle on their way to the United States.

According to data provided by the Panamanian government, so far this year more than 243,000 people (two thirds of them Venezuelans) have used the Darien route, a figure that pulverizes the records of the previous year, when 133,000 migrants made the crossing.

The director general of Panama’s Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, under the Attorney General’s Office, Jose Vicente Pachar, told AFP on Friday that at least 60 migrants have died in 2022 crossing the Darien, a figure that exceeds the half-hundred deaths of 2021.

“There are many testimonies of deceased and abandoned in the jungle,” said Pachar. 

Danger zone

The 266-km-long, 575,000-hectare jungle border between Panama and Colombia is a corridor fraught with dangers, including wild animals, raging rivers and criminal groups that prey on those seeking to migrate to the United States by crossing Central America. 

Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica, with Washington’s support, are seeking to establish possible migratory routes to facilitate safe and regularized transit for migrants, who are arriving in record numbers.

The United States earmarked nearly $18 million in 2022 for humanitarian assistance for refugees and vulnerable migrants in Panama, a figure four times the amount sent in 2021.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro defended in September the idea of a “state presence that allows assistance to people who are traveling the route of death”.

Panama has set up several camps for the humanitarian care of migrants on the border with Colombia, but understands that facilitating their transfer through the jungle would be an indirect benefit to human traffickers.

“The stories of the migrants are heartbreaking. This is a dangerous journey that no one should undertake,” US Ambassador to Panama Mari Carmen Aponte said in early December.

The Panamanian government also believes that any opening of the jungle would endanger the country’s biodiversity.

“The Darien is a protected jungle, an ancestral territory of our indigenous people, it is our lung and is to Panama and Central America what the Amazon is to South America,” Tewaney concluded. 

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