Panamanian authorities recorded the transit of 2,100 people of "interest" to Washington in 2018.

  • Of the 8,445 illegal migrants located in Darien (an increase of 20% in two years), 91% were from Asia and Africa, with goal mostly from reaching the US.

  • The US Southern Command deployed helicopters in January and February 2019 to improve surveillance capabilities in the dense jungle area.

  • Washington's awareness of the presence of AIS in the Central American migrant caravans last autumn prompts it to focus on the Darien Gap.

report SRA 2019 / Alex Puigrefagut[PDF version].

APRIL 2019-One of the most famous icons on the American continent is the Pan-American Route: a network of roads that goes from Argentina to the United States and even allows you to reach Alaska. Between one end and the other there is only one point where you have to get out of the car: 130 kilometers of thick vegetation between Panama and Colombia, really impassable, even difficult to cross on foot. It is the Darien jungle, which is known as the Darien Gap.

Precisely because it blocks land transit between South America and Central America, it has traditionally been a area with little surveillance of migratory flows. This lack of monitoring, however, has led in recent years to a call effect of illegal immigration, mainly from Asia and Africa, which is of concern to the United States. Many of these immigrants are classified by Washington as Special Interest Aliens (SIAs), as they come from countries that, according to the US, show a tendency to promote, produce or protect criminal organisations, mostly terrorist organisations. If they emerge in Panama, they can easily use Central American migratory routes to the US, as has been denounced in the recent crisis of the caravans that departed from Honduras.

Panama' s National Migration Service recorded the passage through Darién of 8,445 illegal immigrants in 2018 (with December still to be counted), of which 5,400 were from Asia and 2,287 from Africa, which together accounted for 91 per cent of the entire contingent. This is an increase of 20 per cent in two years. Of these, 2,123 were nationals from countries the US sees as a potential terrorist threat: most were from Bangladesh (1,440), but also from Eritrea (418), Pakistan (151), Yemen (34), Somalia (32), Afghanistan (10), Iraq (10), Mauritania (10), Syria (7) and Egypt (2). At the end of 2017, the Panamanian National Border Service detained 26 Yemeni nationals with suspected links to terrorist groups.

This migration flow of people labelled as SIAs by Washington was already alerted in 2016 by the US Homeland Securitydepartment , which sent a memo to US border authorities to be vigilant.

With a focus on Darién, in June 2018 the US and Panama agreed to establish a Joint Migration Task Force (JMTF), goal to ensure more effective and comprehensive coordination to address illegal and uncontrolled immigration in the region. Security authorities from both administrations prioritised action against drug trafficking and other types of organised crime that could pose a threat to the security of both Panama and the US, as well as the region as a whole. In January and February 2019, the US Southern Command used helicopters for transports to improve surveillance facilities in Darién.

USA and Colombia

The main purpose of the JMTF created between the two States is that there can be exchange of information and resources to establish strategic border points and thus combat all subject of organised crime on the southern border of Panama, such as drug trafficking, arms trafficking, human trafficking and above all for the comprehensive monitoring of the possible penetration of illegal migrants considered CIS that may be effectively related to international terrorist organisations. In addition, for the proper functioning of the JMTF, the two governments agreed to meet bilaterally twice a year to effectively supervise and coordinate the border security groups.

Already in 2016, the governments of Panama and Colombia implemented further measures in the Binational Border Security Commission (COMBIFRON) to strengthen the fight against drug trafficking and organised crime, as well as illegal migration. These measures included the creation of two shared surveillance points between the two navies in order to control migratory flows along the border of both countries, especially in the Darién region. The area had historically been a place of influence for Colombian cartels and a rearguard for guerrilla forces, so the peace process with the FARC was an opportunity to seek greater state control.

The main problem in the Darién challenge in recent decades, according to some observers, was the passivity shown by Colombia, which gradually decreased patrolling and land control of its part of the border, leaving Panama with limited resources in the face of criminal groups, which led to a considerable increase in the illegal trafficking of drugs, arms and people along the border. This Colombian passivity was mainly due to the fact that the transit of illegal migrants did not create migratory pressure on Colombia, as the flows were towards the northern part of the continent. Although today both countries pay attention to the Darién, control of the area is still deficient, partly because maritime security is prioritised over land security, especially in the case of Colombia.


Irregular transit of foreigners in 2018


Central American caravans

The illegal passage through the Darién of people Washington considers "of interest" because they come from countries that may foment terrorism is part of international routes to the southern border of the United States. Ample evidence sample that the Darién Gap has become a strategic point for regional and US security.

The presence of individuals labelled as SIAs was at the centre of the discussion on the various migrant caravans that in autumn 2018 departed from Central America - emerging in Honduras and increasing in size as they passed through El Salvador and Guatemala - and headed for the US-Mexico border. According to the US think-tank Center for a Secure and Free Society (SFS), these caravans involved individuals from outside Central America, from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, some of whom entered the label of SIA. According to agreement with SFS, these individuals had a privileged attention in the development of the convoys, which could even indicate collusion between SIA networks and certain Central American migration channels. The same centre found that Guatemalan officials detected no less than 157 irregular migrants from other continents, at least 17 of whom were of "special interest" to the US because they came from countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Eritrea.

It is difficult to establish how many people with profile SIAs actually transit through Central America to the US, as their identities are falsified in order to go unnoticed during their journey. On the other hand, the US president exaggerated the state of alarm over the large Central American caravans, because even if there were grounds for the alert, it should not be forgotten that the vast majority of Special Interest Aliens who enter the US and who are highly dangerous because of their direct connections to terrorism arrive by air and not by land. According to an explanatorystatement of the US Homeland Security department , average of ten people on the "terrorist watch list" are apprehended every day (3,700 in the last fiscal year), although few of them enter through the US-Mexico border.

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