Q24N – Panama has announced that it will temporarily close its border with Colombia in an attempt to halt irregular migration, a decision that could impact the dynamics of human smuggling in the region.
Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela made the announcement On May 9.
“We have taken the difficult decision to close the border with Colombia to confront the passage of irregular migrants,” Varela said. “We have to close the border to this irregular flow.”
The same day, the Panamanian government revealed that it had initiated a process that will see around 3,800 Cuban migrants transferred by airplane to Mexico, where they will presumably continue on to the United States.
The Cubans had been stranded in Panama after the country’s northern neighbor, Costa Rica, closed its border with Panama in November 2015.
That border closure coincided with a diplomatic spat between Costa Rica and its own northern neighbor, Nicaragua, centering on the issue of Cuban migration. The Nicaraguan government refused to allow Cuban migrants to pass through its territory, due to its close relationship with the Cuban government, which considers the migrants traitors.
Ultimately, Costa Rica also opted to airlift to Mexico some of the thousands of Cuban migrants stuck in their country.
The ongoing process of “normalizing” relations between the United States and Cuba, announced in December 2014, seems to have spurred an uptick in emigration from Cuba. Many Cubans have reportedly decided to attempt to reach the United States before any possible changes are made to US laws that give special treatment to Cuban migrants.
The decision by Panamanian authorities to close the border with Colombia could mean an increase in business for human traffickers operating in the region. A recent report by the Miami Herald detailed how the increasing number of Cuban migrants fueled a rise in violence on the Colombian side of the border as gangs fought for control of lucrative people smuggling networks. Previous reports indicate migrants from Cuba, as well as those from Asian and African countries, pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars per person to be smuggled over the border with Panama.
The border shutdown could also impact cooperation between Panamanian and Colombian authorities on combating organized crime in the border area, known as the Darién Gap — an infamously difficult-to-traverse jungle region where various paramilitary and criminal groups maintain a presence. A large back-up of migrants on the Colombian side could stretch resources thin and overwhelm local authorities.
“We don’t have any contingency plans if that were to happen,” a Colombian Navy captain told the Miami Herald. “We don’t have the resources to handle it, and the local mayors don’t have the capacity to provide emergency shelter.”
In sum, the border shutdown appears to be motivated more by politics than practicality. Following the release in April of the so-called “Panama Papers,” which showed how a Panamanian law firm apparently facilitated dubious tax-dodging and money laundering schemes using offshore companies, the Panamanian government has made a significant public effort to repair the country’s rule-of-law reputation. As part of that effort, the government recently signed on to new anti-tax avoidance measure and promised to ramp up the fight against organized crime.