A human migration tsunami of historic proportions—anywhere from 70,000 to 85,000 strong—is on its way from throughout the globe to the U.S. southern border, funneling through the notorious so-called “Darien Gap” jungle route that runs out of South America into Panama and northward to the U.S. border.
More international migrants are crossing through the gap than in anyone’s recorded memory now, all heading to the U.S. border. The Associated Press said so. Axios said so. Now, of late, on the front page of its Sunday editions, The New York Times has said so.
But nowhere in any of this profoundly belated coverage was it mentioned that the U.S.-allied government of Panama is the primary official smuggler. Nor has it been mentioned that the U.S.-allied governments of Colombia and Costa Rica are just as complicit in materially facilitating the movement of migrants out of their territories toward the American border.
Both Colombia and Costa Rica allow criminal smuggling organizations to operate mostly unfettered to achieve the national objective of clearing their countries of a potentially expensive problem. With friends like these pushing 70,000-plus immigrants to cause chaos and crisis on the U.S. southern border, as happened recently in Del Rio, Texas, and now Yuma, Arizona, who needs enemies?
Even at a time of epic numbers like these, the United States has never seen fit to publicly acknowledge that Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica are doing this to the American people. The American public hardly knows of it. Nor has the United States sought to diplomatically leverage any of the governments to instead disrupt, slow, or outright halt the flows of illegal migrants long before they reach Mexico.
This strange state of tolerance and American public ignorance, even during the Trump administration, endures even though all three of these nations are ideally positioned as trail-route bottlenecks where new U.S. strategies can significantly attenuate the problem. All involved must simply acknowledge it is happening and express the political will to press for a solution.
The Policy of ‘Controlled Flow’
In December 2018 and again in June 2021, the Center for Immigration Studies sent me to Panama and Costa Rica, where I traveled widely, documenting the international migrant routes leading out of the Darien Gap as an American national security issue. At least several thousand of these migrants a year, after all, hail from Islamic nations where terrorist groups operate.
On that first late 2018 trip, I was surprised to learn that both Panama and Costa Rica had for several years quietly coordinated a practice they called “controlled flow,” which I have dubbed “catch, rest, and release.” The policy was predicated on the quite understandable idea that none of these countries wanted to bear the considerable costs or social burdens of stopping migrants already heading for the exits, blocking them or turning them back. Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica didn’t need to, either, since most of the migrants were voluntarily leaving.
Controlled flow still works like this: Colombia allows thousands of migrants from all over the world to pool up, just as they are now, on edge of the Darien wilderness route to Panama, then tolerates a significant smuggling industry that guides these migrants by foot out through the gap into Panama.
On the gap’s other side, militarized Panamanian police collect the migrants from the trail and bring them to a series of open-door detention camps, which the migrants freely enter and leave. After visiting two, I would call these more like hospitality camps. In these, Panama provides for all the migrants’ basic needs for the next trip: medical treatment, showers, access to communications, money wires, food, and legal permission slips to be in Panama for up to a month.
But everyone knows they won’t need a month. The government coordinates and organizes commercial buses to drive the migrants to the Costa Rica border and drop them at the town of Paso Canoas.
Until the pandemic, Costa Rica also practiced controlled flow in close concert with Panama; Nicaragua, hostile to Costa Rica, bowed out. The migrants were bused to a government hospitality camp at El Golfito or to another one on the northern border in La Cruz, where smugglers were openly allowed to lurk and operate with impunity as necessary to transport the migrants through Nicaragua and to Honduras and beyond.
Costa Rica was not using controlled flow when I visited in June 2021 because the country was still under pandemic border closure, at least on paper for public consumption. But the smugglers operated in the wide open, in front of immigration police and regular police. Police officials on the border told me their orders were not to interfere, except to occasionally bust ranking smuggling kingpins.
The migrants Panama dropped off in Paso Canoas would find taxis and buses to the far northwestern town of La Cruz or the northeastern town of Los Chiles, where phalanxes of taxi smugglers would fish them from bus stations and take them to smuggling groups in Nicaragua, often paying off Nicaraguan soldiers who were part of the industry. The smuggling industry was allowed to thrive to such an extent that an unofficial smuggling town called La Trocha sprung up to handle much of what comes and goes between the two nations.
The policies practiced by this trio of countries are pragmatic and clearly in their own national interests. But those interests are in conflict with the national security interests of the United States and its right to not be forced to contend with huge numbers of illegal immigrants coming through the Darien Gap.
Throwing a Wrench Into the Conveyor Belt
Mexico serves as a time-honored example of how the United States can and does diplomatically insist, with carrots or sticks, that it help control illegal immigration from its southern border toward the U.S. southern border. President Donald Trump pressured Mexico to deploy National Guard on its border and stop caravans from entering. Joe Biden has done the same.
On just national security grounds, I have advocated for several years that the United States use its diplomatic muscle to force Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica to reverse course. My book about this form of migration, “America’s Covert Border War, the Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration,” recommends that the United States negotiate an end to controlled flow policies and develop in its place a scheme to fund passenger flight repatriations directly from those countries.
As a deterrent, there is perhaps no more powerful a tactic than repatriating immigrants back to home countries or designated safe third countries. We saw just how powerful a deterrent air repatriation is during the Del Rio migrant camp episode when President Biden ordered that at least 2,000 Haitians there be flown back to Port-au-Prince. Thousands promptly fled the camp to get away from even the prospect, as I reported, and all those on their way to it suddenly stopped in their tracks and turned around.
No one should expect these countries to fund an American interest out of their treasuries. So the United States would need to fund detention facilities, legal processing infrastructure, and especially air transport to origin countries.
It seems doubtful that the Biden administration would have the interest or diplomatic moxie to pull off such a strategy. But if a goal is for less illegal migration to come from all points of the globe, a meeting among friends will have to happen sooner or later.