Panama is using barbed wire to try to block a major route for U.S.-bound migrants

In a bid to block U.S.-bound migrants, Panama has installed barbed-wire fencing along the Darien Gap, sparking panic among migrants trying to cross the jungle that links South and Central America — but not necessarily stopping them.

Videos of the barbed-wire barriers appeared as early as June 27 in WhatsApp groups for people planning to migrate to the U.S., causing users to ask who was behind the move and if they could still get across the jungle. Since then, the Ministry of Public Security of the Republic of Panama has claimed responsibility for the new installations.

“The patrol at the national border service has begun to block the majority of border passages,” Panama’s minister of public security, Frank Abrego, said at a June 28 news conference during a visit to the Darien Gap. 

The Panamanian government said the new barriers have blocked “the majority of border passages.”Obtained by NBC News

Abrego said that one passage will remain open and that migrants there must present a passport or another form of identification to Panamanian migration authorities. All this, he said, is an effort to manage the flow of people coming in and to prevent organized crime from entering Panamanian cities.

But videos are already circulating via WhatsApp appearing to show migrants getting around the wire fencing. In one video seen by NBC News, a large crowd of men, women and children can be seen lining up behind a fence as they take turns crawling into a hole dug under the barrier and into the jungle.

Smugglers are also telling people that nothing has changed.

“Listen to me, everything is active — Carreto, Acandi, Capurgana, Caledonia,” one smuggler said Sunday in a WhatsApp group, listing off popular routes he said are still open. “The guards did put a fence along Capurgana but people are passing one by one — kids, adults and they are passing the same. They have not sent anyone back nor are they sending anyone back.”

“Stop believing the news, they only seek to stop the flow of migrants,” one smuggler wrote in another WhatsApp group last Tuesday, adding that the only people affected by the barriers are “negative” and “lazy” people.

A family walks through mud
A family of Venezuelan migrants with young children walk through the Colombian portion of the Darien Gap on July 27, 2022. Fabio Cuttica / Thomson Reuters Foundation

The only land bridge 

The Darien Gap is a tangle of mountains, marshes and rainforest 30 miles wide and 100 miles long that is the only land bridge between South America and Panama. An estimated half-million U.S.-bound migrants crossed the gap in 2023.

An estimated total of 197,389 people have traveled through the Darien Gap since Jan. 1, with an estimated 27,375 individuals making the journey in June, according to Panama’s National Migration Service. Migrants from Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and China have represented the majority of those crossing, Panama’s most recent migration data shows.

Slowing migration through the Darien Gap has become a key issue for newly elected Panamanian President José Raúl Mulino. He paid a visit to the Darien region days before he was officially sworn in on July 1.

In a statement to NBC News, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said the U.S. was not behind the fencing, despite increased cooperation between the U.S. and Panama to counter immigration in the region. 

“The U.S. has not provided support to the Government of Panama to erect barriers at its borders” but said the Panamanian government “has a right to protect its borders,” said the spokesperson.  

Stranded migrants from Cuba, Haiti and several African countries arrive in Capurgana, Colombia, near the border with Panama, on July 31, 2021.
Stranded migrants from Cuba, Haiti and several African countries arrive in Capurgana, Colombia, near the border with Panama, on July 31, 2021. Joaquin Sarmiento / AFP via Getty Images

The spokesperson also pointed to an agreement announced last week between the U.S. and Panama that will help the Panamanian government remove and repatriate migrants illegally present in the region. 

“By returning such individuals to their country of origin, we will help deter irregular migration in the region and at our southern border, and halt the enrichment of malign smuggling networks that prey on vulnerable migrants,” the NSC said in a statement on July 1 announcing the agreement.

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