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HomeTopicsLatin AmericaPanama Candidate Mulino Vows to Close Darién Jungle to Migrants

Panama Candidate Mulino Vows to Close Darién Jungle to Migrants

Presidential candidate José Raúl Mulino, the protégé of former President Ricardo Martinelli who leads the polls for the May 5 elections in Panama, promised on Tuesday to “close” the Darién jungle to migrants heading to the United States.

“We are going to close Darién and we are going to repatriate all these people as appropriate, respecting human rights,” Mulino told reporters during an electoral tour of Las Mañanitas, a working-class suburb of the Panamanian capital.

The 266 km long and 575,000 hectare jungle border between Colombia and Panama has become in recent years a corridor for migrants trying to reach the United States from South America.

More than 520,000 people, mostly Venezuelans, crossed the inhospitable jungle in 2023. This year more than 120,000 have made the journey, according to official figures.

“The U.S. border instead of Texas has moved to Panama. So we have to do trilateral work [among the United States, Colombia and Panama] and they have to understand that Panama is not a country of transit for immigrants,” said Mulino, who was Martinelli’s Minister of Security (2009-2014).

Mulino did not say what measures he would take to close the passage through Darién.

I cannot pardon Martinelli

The 64-year-old lawyer denied that if he wins the presidency, he will pardon Martinelli, who took asylum two months ago in the Nicaraguan embassy to avoid a sentence of almost 11 years in prison for money laundering. President Daniel Ortega immediately granted him asylum, but the Panamanian government denied him safe conduct to leave for Managua.

After the conviction, the Electoral Tribunal disqualified Martinelli as a candidate at a time when he was leading the polls and was replaced by Mulino, his running mate for the vice presidency.

“First, I cannot grant pardons for this. Second, what he [Martinelli] wants is a review of his process with justice and to be able to clarify his innocence and prove that the whole trial was a farce to put him outside the electoral race,” said Mulino.

“The [Panamanian] government has shown that it is going to respect it [the Nicaraguan Embassy]. Let’s not have what happened in Ecuador, right? And that is good,” added Mulino, alluding to the police assault on the Mexican legation in Quito on April 5 to arrest former Ecuadorian Vice President Jorge Glas.

Despite his conviction, Martinelli has the support of many Panamanians who remember with nostalgia the country’s economic bonanza during his government.

It would be a farce

Less than 20 days before the elections, Mulino has the highest voting intention (34%), followed by fellow opposition and center-right lawyer Ricardo Lombana (15%) and former social democrat president Martín Torrijos (13%), according to a Doxa poll published on Monday.

Eight candidates are competing in the elections, which are decided by simple majority in a single round. However, Mulino faces a judicial hurdle, as the Supreme Court is reviewing a lawsuit over his direct appointment as presidential candidate by Martinelli, without going through party primaries, as established by the electoral code.

“If my candidacy is annulled, for whatever reasons the Court wants, they are going to annul the electoral process, because the process would be a farce if they take me out, as I am the one who is marking first in all the polls,” said Mulino.

So far there is no announced date for the Court’s decision. Mulino was in preventive detention between 2015 and 2016 for alleged corruption, but the Supreme Court annulled the case due to procedural errors.

During the Manuel Antonio Noriega dictatorship (1983-1989), he was one of the leaders of the Civilist Crusade that opposed the general. He later served as foreign minister for President Guillermo Endara (1989-1994) after the U.S. invasion that overthrew Noriega in 1989.

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