PANAMA – The Trump Administration has been working with Central American countries to help stem the flow of migrants making their way north to the United States.
Last week, the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan traveled to the country of Panama to encourage that country to do more, and it appears these efforts are paying off.
He came to the Latin American nation hoping to increase cooperation between the US and the new Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo.
McAleenan arrived in Panama with an agenda – the US wanted Panama to become a "safe third country", and agree to take in thousands of immigrants from around the world who are passing through here en route to the United States.
But that's a tough sell given that Panama has seen more than 16,000 migrants enter via the Darien Gap this year alone, and is struggling to cope. There are already hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans and Colombians who came here to take advantage of the highest per capita income in Central America.
But McAleenan made it clear that wasn't the only reason for his visit – combating drug and human smuggling was also high on his list.
"This is a regional challenge, the organizations and the criminal activity we're trying to confront crosses borders, it doesn't respect our national sovereignty and the only way to address that effectively is by working together, not just for information sharing, but for concrete operational actions, investigations and interdictions," McAleenan said.
During his three days on the ground, McAleenan also visited a camp in the Darien jungle called Las Penitas where the US Border Patrol has agents registering biometric data on each migrant.
Hundreds from around the world are languishing in legal limbo as Panama tries to determine the best way to move them out of their country.
The daily bus service that was carrying them to Costa Rica has been suspended with no word yet on when it will resume. This uncertainty has made some migrants rethink their plans to seek asylum in the US.
Nelson Wanpadinga, a migrant from the African country of Cameroon, said, "Actually my destination is not the US, my destination is a safe haven where I can have peace and I can do something to help my family back home."
Many of the migrants in need of medical attention end up at the hospital in Meteti because it's the closest one to the migrant camp.
But this place is already overstressed and it doesn't have enough medical supplies even for the people who live here. So the huge number of migrants is causing some friction between the residents and the migrants coming through the jungle.
And the new government is working hard to come up with an acceptable solution.
Panama's Minister of Security Rolando Mirones said, "This is about illegal trafficking and we have to put a stop to it. Panama accepts its regional responsibility, but we have to stop it, we do not want those people to come through here."
"And it is not because we do not want to address this humanitarian crisis, it's because allowing these people to come through here is sponsoring criminals," he added.
With help from US intelligence, Panama recently broke up a major smuggling ring based in Costa Rica that was charging these migrants up to $20,000 each to transport them from Africa to the US.
This proves they are serious about addressing the problem. But with hundreds more making the dangerous trek north through the jungle every week, it's clear to everyone there is much more work to do.