By Elliot Spagat and Rebecca Santana
WASHINGTON (AP) — United States forces will assist their Colombian and Panamanian counterparts with intelligence gathering to dismantle smuggling rings operating in the dense jungle of the Darien Gap, a key route for migrants heading to the U.S. from South America, a senior Biden administration official said Wednesday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details that have not been made public, said migration through the Darien would not end, but the campaign is expected to have significant impact.
The Darien Gap, linking Colombia and Panama, is among the most dangerous portions of the long route to the U.S. borders. Migrants and international human rights groups have denounced sexual assaults, robberies and killings in the remote jungle. That’s in addition to the natural dangers posed by venomous snakes and rushing rivers.
U.S. forces could assist in targeting smugglers for arrest and locating “stash houses” where smugglers hold migrants, the official said without specifying whether the U.S. forces involved would be military or civilian law enforcement.
The United States, Panama and Colombia had announced Tuesday an ambitious 60-day plan to shut down the primary migrant route for people traveling from South America.
The official said the 60-day period had not started yet and was still under consideration, but the effort is part of a broader campaign to prepare for the end of pandemic-era restrictions on applying for asylum at the U.S. border set to expire on May 11.
Some 87,000 migrants passed through the Darien Gap in the first three months of the year, well ahead of last year’s pace of 14,000 during the same period. Last year set a record with nearly 250,000 using the route, according to Panama’s government.
The same obstacles that make it a treacherous crossing for migrants will make it impossible for authorities to completely cut off. It is about 60 miles of roadless dense jungle used by organized criminal groups for smuggling drugs and people.
On the Colombian side, authorities will have to address multiple entry points and established smuggling routes. Most of the trek, however, lies on the Panamanian side of the border in jungle authorities seldom enter. Instead, the government has set up camps at the remote edge where they receive traumatized migrants.
Tuesday’s joint statement had also referred to “new lawful and flexible pathways for tens of thousands of migrants and refugees as an alternative to irregular migration,” but without details.
The administration official said the additional openings for “tens of thousands” of people have not yet been defined but will be in addition to the 30,000 parole slots currently available each month to Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans.