José Raúl Mulino sworn in as Panama's new president, promises to stop migration through Darien Gap

PANAMA CITY (AP) — José Raúl Mulino was sworn in Monday as Panama’s next president, facing pressure to slow irregular migration through the Darien Gap that connects his country with Colombia.

The 65-year-old former security minister has promised to shut down migration through the jungle-clad and largely lawless border.

More than half a million people traversed the corridor last year and more than 190,000 people have crossed so far in 2024, with most of the migrants hailing from Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and China.

“I won’t allow Panama to be an open path for thousands of people who enter our country illegally, supported by an international organization related to drug trafficking and human trafficking,” Mulino said Monday, after he was sworn in. “I understand that there are deep-rooted reasons for migration, but each country has to resolve its problems.”

Shortly after Mulino’s inauguration, the Panamanian government released a statement saying that U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas had signed a memorandum of understanding Monday with Panama’s Foreign Affairs Minister Javier Martínez-Acha in which the U.S. government committed to covering the cost of repatriation of migrants who enter Panama illegally through the Darien.

Last week on a visit to the Darien, Mulino announced he would seek an agreement with the United States government to aid in deporting migrants who crossed into Panama. Mayorkas was among those who attended his inauguration.

The U.S. role would largely be covering the cost of deportation flights. Panama’s Foreign Affairs Minister-designate Javier Martínez Acha said Sunday that the U.S. would help cover the costs, but that the amounts were not yet set.

“As the key issue on his agenda, Mulino has promised to end irregular immigration through the Darien Gap,” said Michael Shifter, adjunct professor at Georgetown University. “The new president appears to be supremely committed to this idea.”

“However, it won’t be easy to carry out this policy, groups and interests can be expected to come out against it,” Shifter said. The U.S. government will have to shoulder the costs of deportation, he said.

Panama’s active efforts to stop and deport migrants would be a massive shift. Under the outgoing administration, Panama had sought to help migrants cross the country quickly and in an orderly fashion. Migrants emerge from the jungle, register with authorities and are swept across the country to the Costa Rican border.

The presidents of Costa Rica and Colombia also attended the inauguration.

Strengthening enforcement efforts in Panama could potentially reduce the number of migrants reaching the U.S. border, at least for a time until new routes are established. But it could also force migrants to riskier paths and be a boon for smugglers.

Mulino won the election in May in a crowded field with more than 30% of the vote. He replaced former President Ricardo Martinelli as candidate after the former leader was banned from running after being sentenced to 10 years in prison for money laundering.

In addition to migration, Mulino will have to manage one of the world’s key trade routes, the Panama Canal, which was forced to limit traffic this year by persistent drought.

He will also have to find a way to plug a hole in Panama’s budget caused by the scrapping of a major mining concession after popular protests.

On Monday, Mulino criticized the outgoing administration of President Laurentino Cortizo for leaving him a limping economy and high levels of public debt.

“I will have an administration mainly focused on resolving the problem of the great majority of Panamanians,” Mulino said. “That doesn’t mean getting rid of wealth, but rather combating poverty.”

He promised to launch a program aimed at youth employment and an effort to rebuild the country’s roads and highways.


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