Former US Ambassador: Panama’s New President Could Be Game Changer for US Border Crisis

Carlos Trujillo, who is well-connected in Latin American politics, believes President-elect Jose Mulino can stifle mass illegal immigration in Panama.
Former US Ambassador: Panama’s New President Could Be Game Changer for US Border Crisis
Migrants are herded through an immigration checkpoint after being ferried by canoe to Bajo Chiquito, Panama, on Feb. 18, 2024. Bajo Chiquito is the first camp after crossing the Darien Gap from Colombia into Panama. (Bobby Sanchez for The Epoch Times)
Darlene McCormick Sanchez
5/21/2024
Updated:
5/22/2024
0:00

Panama’s president-elect Jose Mulino could be a game changer for the U.S. border crisis if he closes the Darién Gap to mass migration, according to a former ambassador to the region.

Carlos Trujillo, who is well versed in Latin American politics, is a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States under former President Donald Trump. The organization includes all 35 independent states of the Americas.

Mr. Trujillo told The Epoch Times he has met Mr. Mulino and knows several members of his inner circle.

“He’s very pro-American,” Mr. Trujillo said.

Mr. Mulino could curb migration to the United States, but he would likely have to do it without support from the Biden administration, Mr. Trujillo said.

Mr. Mulino takes office on July 1 for a five-year term.

He was elected president of Panama on May 5 on a platform that included shutting down the treacherous jungle migrant route through the Darién Gap connecting Colombia to Panama, as well as the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of migrants on their way to the United States.

“When repatriation begins here, those who try to arrive will think twice because they will not have an easy destination because they will be transferred to their countries of origin,” Mr. Mulino said during a May 6 interview with a Colombian radio program.

Mr. Mulino, a 64-year-old attorney who served as Panama’s security minister from 2009 to 2014, is known for what he described as “recovering” a section of the Darién Gap that “was in the hands of the narco-guerrillas” from Colombia.

Curtailing illegal immigration through Panama could be accomplished by adding security and deterrence, such as immediate deportation, Mr. Trujillo said.

“Obviously, there’s a massive human and financial cost to a country like Panama to house and keep these migrants, which is very difficult for them to do,” Mr. Trujillo said.

The Mulino administration is considering adding new checkpoints and turning migrants back in the Darién Gap, according to Panama’s incoming security chief, Frank Abrego. The Panama–Colombia border is 140 miles in length.

Mr. Abrego floated the idea of a formal border closure as well as more checkpoints in comments to reporters immediately after a press conference on May 16 in the capital, where the next president introduced members of his cabinet.

“If a border closure were declared tomorrow, we'd establish the checkpoints where we can detain ... these illegal immigrants,” Mr. Abrego said.

“I think that’s going to happen,” he said.

Panama’s former border director, Oriel Ortega, told The Epoch Times in February that the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the United Nations should educate and help migrants in their own countries instead of facilitating mass migration through Panama. Attempts to get a response from several NGOs and the United Nations in Panama were unsuccessful.

After his election win, Mr. Mulino received congratulations from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who also noted that controlling migration is one of the countries’ shared goals.

Ambassador Carlos Trujillo was sworn in as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States on March 30, 2018. (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of State)
Ambassador Carlos Trujillo was sworn in as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States on March 30, 2018. (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of State)

“I look forward to continuing our strategic partnership and advancing our shared goals of democratic governance and inclusive economic prosperity,” Mr. Blinken said in a May 6 statement.

Mr. Mulino was a surprise late entry into the presidential race after replacing candidate and former president Ricardo Martinelli.

Mr. Mulino had been tapped as Mr. Martinelli’s running mate but took his place after the latter was sentenced to a decade in prison for money laundering and barred from running.

Mr. Martinelli backed Mr. Mulino from the Nicaraguan Embassy, where he has been living since he was granted asylum in early February.

As migration increased through the Darién Gap, Mr. Trujillo said the Biden administration has failed to provide assistance to Panama to shut down the route.

The majority of migrants traveling through the Darién Gap are Venezuelan, but nationalities from around the world are making the trek.

Last week in Honduras, which is on the migrant route to the United States, Mr. Trujillo said he observed staging facilities set up expressly for Venezuelan migrants to sleep and eat.

Transnational criminal groups are controlling mass migration, which is big business at this point, and poses a national security and humanitarian threat, he said.

“They make more money trafficking children and trafficking people across the southern border than they can take on narcotics,” he said.

A boy and father from Honduras are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico Border near Mission, Texas, on June 12, 2018. (John Moore/Getty Images)
A boy and father from Honduras are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico Border near Mission, Texas, on June 12, 2018. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Notably, there is a 40 percent increase in children traveling through the Darién Gap since last year, he said.

Numbers from the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) confirmed the increase.

UNICEF, which is present at migrant camps in Panama, showed that 30,000 children made the journey during the first four months of 2024, marking a “significant increase” compared to last year.

“Among them, about 2,000 were unaccompanied or separated from their families,” an agency release stated.

Mr. Trujillo said he sees the issue in Honduras. “There are multiple kids with Venezuelan flags, begging for money—unaccompanied,” he said.

Migrants offer criminal organizations an almost limitless commodity with zero production costs, unlike drugs, he noted.

They either pay these criminal groups tens of thousands of dollars, or migrants are sold into slavery, he said.

“If people who advocate for these policies, especially the NGOs, know the carnage that they’re causing to the actual migrants, I think they would stop,” he said.

International Organization for Migration (IOM) office in the City of Knowledge in Panama City February 17, 2024. (Bobby Sanchez for The Epoch Times)
International Organization for Migration (IOM) office in the City of Knowledge in Panama City February 17, 2024. (Bobby Sanchez for The Epoch Times)

Last April, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas met with officials from Panama and Colombia to discuss “irregular migration” affecting the three nations.

The focus was not on shutting down the migrant route to the United States, but on “opening new lawful and flexible pathways for tens of thousands of migrants and refugees as an alternative” to irregular migration.

During a May 7 visit to Guatemala, Mr. Blinken discussed the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, which was signed by the United States and Latin American countries in 2022 to “create the conditions for safe, orderly, humane, and regular migration and to strengthen frameworks for international protection and cooperation.”

“Since then, together, we have partnered to transform our hemisphere’s approach to this truly historic challenge,” Mr. Blinken said during a speech.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas attend a press conference on the Ministerial Conference on Migration and Protection in Panama City on April 20, 2022. (Brendan Smialowski/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas attend a press conference on the Ministerial Conference on Migration and Protection in Panama City on April 20, 2022. (Brendan Smialowski/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Yet, the migrants hoping to ultimately cross illegally into the United States keep coming.

Last year alone, 500,000 migrants made the trek through the dangerous terrain to arrive in migrant camps in Panama.

“The entire responsibility has fallen on the Panamanians,” Mr. Trujillo said, adding that Colombia, which has received billions of dollars from the United States, hasn’t stepped in to stop migrants on its side of the border.

Mr. Trujillo believes the U.S. Congress would support Mr. Mulino’s plan to shut down the migration route and stop the trafficking.

“You wouldn’t wish this on your worst enemy,” he said of the dangerous route.

Reuters contributed to this report.
Darlene McCormick Sanchez is an Epoch Times reporter who covers border security and immigration, election integrity, and Texas politics. Ms. McCormick Sanchez has 20 years of experience in media and has worked for outlets including Waco Tribune Herald, Tampa Tribune, and Waterbury Republican-American.
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