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HomeTopicsLatin AmericaPanama Vows to End Migrant Transit, US to Fund Repatriations

Panama Vows to End Migrant Transit, US to Fund Repatriations

The new president of Panama, José Raúl Mulino, promised on Monday to prevent his country from serving as a transit point for migrants crossing the Darién jungle on their way to the United States, whose government committed to financing the repatriations.

“Panama will no longer be a transit country for illegals,” he stated energetically in his inaugural speech at the Atlapa Convention Center in Panama City, before international dignitaries, his cabinet and the new deputies.

Mulino warned that his country cannot continue “financing the economic and social cost of migration” through the Darién jungle, bordering Colombia and through which half a million people passed in 2023.

After the ceremony, the new Foreign Minister, Javier Martínez-Acha, signed an agreement with the US Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, in which Joe Biden’s government commits to “cover the expense” of repatriating migrants who “enter illegally” into Panama through the Darién.

In his speech, Mulino, a 65-year-old lawyer who begins a five-year term, also pledged to return the dynamism of the Panamanian economy, dependent on its interoceanic canal, to the country.

US transport and logistics

The United States, according to the agreement signed by Mayorkas, commits to “support Panama with equipment, transportation and logistics” against “irregular migratory flows,” and Mulino’s government, for its part, to respect human rights, according to an official statement.

Mulino also addressed the migration crisis early Monday with Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who attended the inauguration.

“I understand that there are profound reasons for migration, but each country must solve its problems,” Mulino said in his speech.

More than 200,000 people, the vast majority Venezuelans, have passed through the Darién Gap so far this year, where criminal gangs operate that kidnap, rob and rape migrants. Many die in this inhospitable jungle.

A migration agreement with Panama “fits like a glove” in an election year in the United States, but the border “is very porous” and repatriations “need multilateral collaboration,” political scientist Sabrina Bacal told AFP.

Economic quagmire and the Panama Papers

Mulino said he was receiving a country in an economic “quagmire”, with a fiscal deficit of 7.4%, a public debt of 50 billion and a collapsed social security system.

“With a firm step we are going to implement an economic plan that includes austerity in spending, public works, attracting investments and recovering the confidence of international markets in Panama,” he promised in his speech.

Mulino will urgently need to seek a project to ensure water supply in the Panama Canal, the engine of the economy (6% of GDP) which in the last year had to reduce ship traffic due to a drought favored by climate change.

The new president also assured that he will clean up the country’s image, seriously damaged by the “Panama Papers” scandal, an investigation based on the leak of millions of documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

“In reality it was an international hoax to undermine the image and competitiveness of our country,” he stated, recalling that on Friday a local court acquitted 28 defendants of money laundering related to Mossack Fonseca.

My friend Martinelli

Mulino came to power driven by the popularity of controversial former president Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014), whom he replaced as a candidate in the May 5 elections because he had been granted asylum in March at the Nicaraguan embassy due to a sentence of almost 11 years for money laundering.

Martinelli’s future and the role he will play in his government is a complete unknown, as many wonder if he would give him safe passage or a pardon.

“I am proud to have been part of that government that made us dream big and that President Martinelli, my friend, led for the benefit of the people,” said Mulino, former Minister of Security in that administration.

On Monday, Martinelli was visited by Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada in his refuge at the embassy, according to a photo he posted on Instagram in which they appear shaking hands.

Mulino will govern with a Congress (71 seats) in which independents are the main force, but his party, Realizando Metas (RM), founded by Martinelli, controls the leadership and its 13 deputies could dominate parliament in alliance with traditional blocs.

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