Accessibility links

Breaking News

Panama Launches Operation in Darien Jungle Targeting Organized Crime, Migrant Smugglers

Panamanian border police attend a launch ceremony for Operation Shield in Nicanor, Darien province, Panama, June 2, 2023.

Panama launched a security operation along its shared border with Colombia on Friday to combat criminal gangs and migrant smugglers involved in record-setting migration through the perilous Darien Gap this year.

Security officials said Operation Shield is part of the agreement reached with the governments of Colombia and the United States in April to stop the flow of migrants through the border's jungle-clad mountains.

Panama will use previously U.S.-donated helicopters to increase aerial patrols of the largely roadless region but stressed that it was a Panamanian operation. The government will also send more special border police units into the area to try to root out the criminal gangs.

"This is an action by the Panamanian government against criminals who are earning fortunes from human pain," Panama Security Minister Juan Manuel Pino said.

Some 1,200 immigration agents, border police and members of the naval air service will participate. Pino denied that the operation represented the militarization of the Darien.

Earlier this week, authorities said border police had killed three suspected bandits in a shootout in Darien.

Officials dismissed any suggestion of closing the border. It was the first visible example of the efforts promised by the three governments in April.

Last year, nearly 250,000 people crossed the Darien Gap, almost double the 133,000 who crossed in 2021, and a new record. That increase was driven largely by Venezuelans, who accounted for some 60% of the migrants crossing there last year.

In April, the United Nations warned that the unprecedented number of crossings to start the year suggested that some 400,000 migrants could cross by the end of 2023. According to government data, nearly 170,000 migrants crossed the Darien in the first four months of the year, five times the number from the same period last year.