Every night inside the chain link fence of Panama’s San Vicente Migration Reception Station near the Colombian border, up to a thousand or more migrants emerge from a sea of tents to board a caravan of sixty-seat buses run by the Panamanian government.
Together in a convoy, the buses travel overnight to another migration reception station seven hundred kilometers away at Los Planes de Gualaca, near the Costa Rican border.
The migrants are released and, telling border guards they are migrants, are allowed to cross into Costa Rica, which similarly allows them to pass through to Nicaragua. They receive no passport stamps indicating they were ever in Panama or Costa Rica, and many have no passport at all.
Once in Nicaragua, the migrants join coyotes, who lead them on the rest of the way northward, where most aim to stay in Mexico or the United States.
This border-to-border migrant shuttle bus system inside Panama is part of Operation Controlled Flow (officially the Controlled Flow Binational Operation), a joint program between Panama and neighboring Costa Rica. The two countries established the program in 2016 as a last resort, to mitigate the costs and dangers of having thousands of illegal migrants on their soil by pushing them through and out of their territory as efficiently as possible.
But now the number of migrants has skyrocketed, and Operation Controlled Flow is overflowing. The Panamanian government reported that a staggering 130,000 migrants crossed from Colombia into Panama in 2021, including 29,000 children.
In the past year, the largest numbers have come from Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, and Chile, with the rest coming from over a hundred other countries across South America, Africa, and Asia, such as Senegal, China, Mauritania, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bangladesh, Ghana, Nigeria, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Togo, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan. But of the “extra-regional” migrants—i.e., those from outside the Americas—many have already been living in South American countries for months or years.
Put differently, migrants from around the globe are using South America as a transit continent, a stepping stone for migrations to North America, and to get there, all of them must funnel through Panama. Thus the influx of illegal migration into Panama is now over ten times anything seen before, and there is no sign of it slowing down.
Speeding Migrants North
For decades, most migrants have entered Panama from Colombia by making the perilous journey across the Darién Gap, an ungoverned space of jungles and swamps controlled by drug cartels. The journey usually takes from four to ten days, and war correspondent Michael Yon estimates that about 10 percent of migrants die crossing.
With no roads over some one hundred kilometers, the region is infested with mosquitos carrying yellow fever and malaria, and waterborne diseases are rampant. Torrential rains over half the year leave the migrant trails through the jungle covered in deep mud, which sprains ankles and twists knees. Many are swept away in the Darién Gap rivers’ flash floods or fall off the muddy slopes of La Montaña de la Muerte, “The Mountain of Death,” the last of three mountains they must cross. Others die from drinking tainted water, and some have to unload their food, water, or tents to carry their children.
Some parents die on the journey while their children continue. Some migrants cross the Darién Gap alone, but others cross in groups of up to a hundred or more and pay for coyotes to lead them. The cartels give coyotes approval and get a cut of the human smuggling profits. Migrants are frequently murdered, sexually assaulted, robbed, cheated, or abandoned along the way.
When migrants crossing the Darién Gap emerge out of the jungle inside Panama, they find themselves in the remote Emberá-Wounaan indigenous territory, where each must pay tribe members $25 for a boat ride upriver to the Bajo Chiquito Migration Reception Station in the center of the territory. And Panama also uses its police, its border security agency senafront, and elements of its military to sweep the Colombian border around the Darién Gap, collecting migrants coming across and trucking them to nearby migration reception stations. One way or another, migrants corralled from the Darien Gap border region are trucked some fifty kilometers to the larger San Vicente Migration Reception Station, situated along the Pan-American Highway, to wait for the overnight buses of Operation Controlled Flow.
I recently traveled to the San Vicente Migration Reception Station and spoke to half a dozen migrants, mostly young men from Venezuela and Colombia who were milling about the white UN tents, where Latin rap music blared in the background. They had been stuck in the camp for four days, unable to pay the $40 fee for the Operation Controlled Flow buses. They said it had taken them four days to cross the Darién Gap. “We spent more than a day wading through the swamp with water up to here,” said one, pointing to the top of his thighs.
Their feet were still swollen and covered with red marks from trench foot. One young man in his twenties had crossed with his wife and two young kids, including a toddler who was sitting on his shoulders wearing only a diaper. He opened an empty baby bottle and said the facility had no baby formula.
At the San Vicente station, the Panamanian government, UN International Organization for Migration, and Doctors Without Borders are assigned to address migrants’ health needs. But the care they can provide is very limited, as they are overwhelmed by the numbers of migrants, according to Senior Investigator Juan Pappier of Human Rights Watch, who visited the station in May. Besides trench foot, migrants often arrive with broken bones, dehydration, malnutrition, emotional exhaustion, and insect bites. They include disoriented elderly people, babies, toddlers, and pregnant women. The migration reception stations provide basic food, water, medical care, and diapers.
Just outside the station’s heavily guarded entrance was a makeshift Western Union operating from a wooden shack with one window. Migrants were lined up to receive cash from abroad to continue their journey. A woman waiting in a white UN International Migration Organization SUV parked nearby told me she gives presentations explaining migrants’ options for seeking asylum and refugee status in Panama, should they choose to do so. But she said most migrants are set on continuing northward in search of the American dream.
Faster by Sea
Now a new, faster sea route is allowing migrants to bypass the dangers of the Darién Gap. Starting around February of this year, Panama mysteriously withdrew the government ships that normally guard its coastline near Colombia, allowing migrant smuggling ships not only to land along but to travel down rivers inland into Panama, according to Todd Bensman, a senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.
This new sea route costs migrants $300, and Bensman says it cuts the migrants’ crossing into Panama down to just two days, compared to ten days through the Darién Gap. In a recent article, Bensman calls the new sea route part of a “superhighway” that speeds migrants along toward the U.S.-Mexico border, which he says the Biden administration seems to be encouraging. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited Panama for two days in April specifically to iron out details of a migration strategy with President Laurentino Cortizo. The meeting resulted in the Bilateral Agreement on Migration and Protection, which a State Department press release described as emphasizing “humane border management, stabilization of displaced populations and host communities, and improved access to protection and legal pathways to provide an alternative to irregular migration.” Notably absent was any mention of how to deter or stop illegal migration.
But the new migrant sea route has its own hazards: On July 2, Roberto Bermudéz, a Venezuelan migrant safety watchdog living in Panama, tweeted a video from Chamos Noticias showing a capsized migrant boat floating off Panama’s coast at Puerto Escocés. In an unsuccessful attempt to reach the small port town of Carreto, in Panama, the boat had been carrying over one hundred Venezuelans, Cubans, and Haitians, who were later rescued. One of the migrants told Chamos Media Panama that the passengers did not have life jackets, and that children and babies were on board.
Thus in light of the many dangers illegal migrants face, Bensman argues that beyond the U.S. national interest, shutting down migrant trafficking through Panama and Colombia is the humane option. “It’s morally problematic for governments to enrich criminal human smuggling gangs by hand-delivering migrants to them,” says Bensman. “The smugglers are doing all kinds of terrible things to people. And there are a lot of dead people in the Darién Gap because of the open border in the United States. Why not secure the border for them?”
Loopholes and Asylum Fraud: A Broken U.S. Migration System
Bensman says the Biden administration’s string of migration policy changes and exceptions incentivized a migration surge almost instantaneously. Biden increased the U.S. refugee cap from 15,000 to 125,000 in 2022, and implemented exceptions to Title 42 which have allowed U.S. entry for (a) migrant families with children under seven, (b) women seven months or more pregnant, and (c) unaccompanied minors. The news of these policy changes actually incentivized hundreds of women to get pregnant, says Bensman, and time their migration journey according to the new rules, with many leaving South America at four months pregnant and arriving at the U.S. border just as they reached seven months.
“Everybody’s trying to find the policy niche that will let them in. It’s one big massive scam,” says Bensman, who for years has interviewed migrants in Panama and along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. He says migrants quickly learn all the relevant details of new policies through social media. For example, families with multiple children who fall both over and under the age limit know they can simply split up as they reach the border and send the child over seven alone as an unaccompanied minor while the parents and the children under seven go in together. And in a recent article in the Federalist, Bensman describes how thousands of migrants who have a safe country to live in and whose lives are not in danger are entering the United States through asylum fraud. Bensman has personally collected hundreds of Brazilian and Chilean IDs on the Mexican side of the U.S. border, all of which have been discarded by migrants from Haiti, Senegal, and other countries, who have lived and worked safely and securely in these South American countries for years. The migrants know that any evidence of their time living abroad would disqualify them from being granted asylum. “All the passport stamps from living in other countries will get you a check in the ‘no’ box for asylum,” says Bensman. “But they know that if they say they were robbed and their passport was taken, no one will ever know. And they can claim they came straight from Haiti and can’t go back there.”
The Panamanian Pipeline
A natural choke point between North and South America only about a hundred kilometers wide, the Panama-Colombia border is geographically an obvious place to stop illegal migration through the Americas. But this would require deportation flights and other measures too expensive to expect of a small developing country like Panama, according to Bensman. “The American interest is not to have 145,000 migrants coming to our border each year, as they did in 2021. Panama, Colombia, and Costa Rica are our allies, but we should not expect other countries to pay for our interest,” said Bensman in an interview. He argues that the United States should offer Panama and Colombia a plan to deploy ICE Air (running out of Darién air bases) and fund detention centers for migrants awaiting deportation as well as humanitarian assistance. The cost of helping Panama secure its border, says Bensman, would be a “drop in the bucket” compared to what the United States spends on apprehending migrants on the Mexican border—or the amount the United States has spent in Ukraine, or in assisting Colombia for decades in fighting against FARC and drug cartels.
Such a plan would make Panama a sort of unofficial second southern border for the United States—one far easier to secure than the U.S.-Mexico border, which is over thirty times longer. And this role as a second southern border is one Panama has played before. During the Panama Canal Zone era, from 1903 to 1979, the Canal Zone was an official U.S. territory where up to a hundred thousand American citizens known as “Zonians” lived. Spanning the Isthmus of Panama from Atlantic to Pacific, the Canal Zone was protected by all four branches of the U.S. military. Its security was so tight that at times Panamanian citizens had to get permission from U.S. police to cross to the other side of their own country. U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships patrolled Panama’s coastlines. Thus Panama functioned as a plug in the Crossroads of the Americas, stopping and deterring illegal flows of migrants and drugs coming northward from South America.
But when the Canal Zone was abolished in 1979, the plug was removed, and Panama quickly became part of a pipeline of migration and drug flows northward from Colombia. In the 1980s, as the last U.S. military police left Panama, the forces of dictator Manuel Noriega took control, just as Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar was reaching the peak of his power. Soon Noriega was working closely with Escobar, and narcotrafficking through Panama skyrocketed. While President George H. W. Bush eventually removed Noriega in 1989 with Operation Just Cause, the plug was now long gone, and the flow of drugs and migrants through Panama would continue until the present.
Since pulling its military out of the Panama Canal Zone over forty years ago, the United States has never provided Panama with the help it needs to secure its border. This is a missed geostrategic opportunity. In the meantime, Panama is left to apply band-aids to the migration problem, like Operation Controlled Flow. Without this program, migrants would pile up in overwhelming numbers inside Panama and Costa Rica.
This has already happened. Costa Rica closed its border in March 2020 during Covid, leaving 2,536 migrants stranded in Panama, unable to continue their journey. At the time, Panama’s original migration reception station at La Peñita in Darién had only a hundred beds, and it started to run out of food and water. Some migrants threatened to burn the station down, and the national border service senafront had to intervene to secure the facility. The government responded by constructing the new, larger San Vicente Migration Reception Station, which opened in September 2020 and has five hundred beds, but receives three hundred to nine hundred migrants every day. While it is an improvement, the new San Vicente station is often not enough, and on my visit, ongoing construction of dozens of additional shelters could be seen.
In July, bus travel for Operation Controlled Flow became impossible when Panamanians set up road blocks along the Pan-American Highway during massive protests over corruption and high food and fuel prices. With thousands of migrants piling up and only five hundred beds, the San Vicente Migration Reception Station opened its gates and released migrants to walk onward on their own.
Geography has made Panama the key location to stop illegal migration from South America to North America. All overland routes run through the Isthmus of Panama, and sea routes hug its coast. But as yet, there is no sign that the Biden administration recognizes the need—much less the opportunity—to nip the problem in the bud by helping Panama secure its border. Nor does it seem to recognize that the loopholes created by its own policies turned on the primary magnet stimulating the massive surge in migrants. Far too late, the Biden administration has expressed concern for the welfare of migrants coming through the Darién Gap. But it has not taken any significant action on the ground to deter migrants from leaving home in the first place, which is the obvious and best way to ensure their safety. Continuing to create systems that reward illegal migration rather than deter it will ensure that the deaths in the Darién Gap, the asylum fraud on the U.S. border, and the costs to Panama and other transit countries have no end in sight.