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If Panama Closes the Darién Gap, Would Evangelicals Care?

(UPDATED) Migrant rights have been off-radar for many Panamanian Christians. But as pressures increase, some are speaking out ahead of this weekend’s general elections.
If Panama Closes the Darién Gap, Would Evangelicals Care?
Image: Luis Acosta / Contributor / Getty
A migrant woman carrying her daughter near the first border control of the Darien Province in Panama.

Update (May 6, 2024): José Raúl Mulino will be Panama’s new president after the Realizando Metas (Realizing Goals) party candidate won 34.2 percent of the vote.

Mulino began the campaign as the running mate of former president Ricardo Martinelli. (Martinelli previously served from 2009 to 2014.) When Martinelli was booted from the ticket after receiving a 10-year prison sentence for money laundering, Mulino assumed the top of the ticket. While other candidates fought to get him removed from the ballot for bypassing the party’s selection process, the country’s supreme court declared it legal two days prior to the election.

Last month, Mulino promised to close the Darién Gap, where tens of thousands of migrants have crossed from Colombia to Panama on their journey to the US border. On Monday, the president-elect reiterated his desire to do so, saying that he will work with the governments of Colombia and the United States to jointly create a long-term solution.

“Currently we have technology to survey the border, and I hope to start a repatriation process as early as possible,” he said in an interview Monday with Radio Blu.

Mulino is set to be inaugurated on July 1.


On May 5, Panamanians will vote for a new president. The outcome of this election may have consequences for far more than its 4.4 million residents; it could change the migration reality for the hundreds of thousands of people traveling from South America, Asia, and Africa who pass through the Central American country en route to the United States.

Leading in the polls is José Raúl Mulino, a candidate for Realizando Metas (Realizing Goals), a right-wing populist party founded by disgraced president Ricardo Martinelli. He has vowed to shut down the Darién Gap, a densely forested jungle area that migrants must traverse to enter Panama from the bordering country of Colombia.

“We’re going to close Darién and we’re going to repatriate every one of these people, respecting their human rights,” said Raúl Mulino in April.

For many Panamanians, there was no migrant crisis before 2022. After passing through the Darién gap, migrants passed through the country on government buses to the Costa Rican border. But after a shift in US migrant policy sent many back to Central America a couple years ago, hundreds have since moved to Panama City and a handful of small towns. Residents have begun to blame them for crime and for overwhelming their sanitation systems.

Though evangelicals have largely been on the sidelines, many leaders say they should have done more.

“The church does not see the refugee problem as their own problem,” said Panamanian missionary Robert Bruneau, a regional leader with United World Mission. “They believe it is something the state should do and are not aware of the great opportunity they have to graciously and honorably serve someone who bears the image of God.”

A treacherous journey

With its mountainous rural terrain and long-standing control by Colombian gangs, the Darién Gap is one of the most treacherous passages of the arduous journey undertaken by migrants heading north. Few communities live in its swamps and jungles, rendering it one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes.

Immigrants first traveled through the region beginning in the 1990s, when Colombian citizens used the jungle to escape guerilla groups and flee to Panama or elsewhere. In the 2000s, Venezuelans started to travel through Central America and the Darién Gap as they sought refuge in the United States through the Mexican border. Since 2014, more than 7 million have left the country. Today, migrants from places as diverse as Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Haiti, Nepal, and China (who first fly into Colombia or Brazil) follow the same dangerous path.

As recently as 2011, fewer than 300 migrants crossed the border between Colombia and Panamá irregularly. Last year, the number surged to 520,000. Through the end of April this year, more than 135,000 people have entered Panama. And about 120,000 children crossed the Darién Gap last year, many unaccompanied, with approximately half under the age of five.

Survivors who make it through the forest arrive at camps, established by the Panamanian government, often suffering from health issues due to extreme exertion, malnutrition, or diseases transmitted by mosquitoes or contaminated water.

World Vision is one of a handful of Christian organizations serving migrants passing through the Darién Gap and works with churches to provide food, clothing, security, and legal guidance to those passing through the region.

“[These people] do not migrate by choice,” Mishelle Mitchell, a World Vision spokesperson for Latin America and the Caribbean, told CT. “They flee hunger, war, poverty, and deserve the right to be respected.”

Unseen and unheard

After recuperating in camps, the government offers migrants two ways of continuing their journey: For roughly $40, they can travel in privately operated buses to the Costa Rican border. Or they can go to the border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua for around $80 to $90. The journey, which takes less than a day, keeps migrants from traveling on foot, a common scene in most Central American countries. It also largely keeps them out of sight and out of mind, says Gustavo Gumbs, an evangelical pastor who began working with migrants nearly a decade ago.

“The church was not awake to the refugee problem,” he said. “Even today, there are those who are either unaware of migrants or are not mobilized to help them.”

Evangelicals make up 22 percent of the population, compared to 65 percent of Catholics. But more than a dozen Catholic organizations work in the Darién region, led by Cáritas, the international arm of the Vatican for human rights, food security, and sustainable development.

In March, in a letter, Pope Francis addressed a group of migrants who met bishops and local authorities in Lajas Blancas, a city close to the Darién Gap, trying to find common ground with them as a son of Italian immigrants who went to Argentina “in search of a better future.”

“Migrant brothers and sisters, never forget your human dignity,” he wrote. “Do not be afraid to look others in the eye, because you are not a throwaway; you too are part of the human family and of the family of God’s children.”

Gumbs began Fundación de Asistencia a Migrantes (FAM) after feeling like he had a Christian responsibility to help those he saw in need in Panama City.

“We had an explosion in the number of migrants,” he said. “The government admitted that it could not take care of everyone.”

In 2016, he began collecting donations from churches of food, clothing, and hygiene items to take to migrants in Darién. Currently, more than 100 volunteers travel to the region daily to help migrants.

For years, Panama’s camps and bus system meant that few migrants interacted with locals. But in 2022, migrants began to return to other Latin American countries after the shift in US policy. Many arrived in Panama City.

“Suddenly, we had 10,000 people to feed,” said Gumbs, who picked up food from churches and collected donations from other Christians to pay for plane tickets for migrants going home.

“For the first time in many years, all denominations came together to do something together in Panama,” he said.

The success of the initiative led the Panamanian government to recognize FAM’s efforts, which now participates in migration discussions with internationally recognized organizations such as UNHCR and the Red Cross.

“As Matthew 5:16 says, even if they are not believers, they give thanks to God when they see the good works we do,” he said.

Even so, Panamanian Christians know the sum of their efforts has been modest.

“We are a small country. What we can do is insufficient; it’s like trying to stop a hemorrhage with a Band-Aid,” said Roderick Burgos, an evangelical social services leader.

For Panamanians, the influx of migrants is discomforting. Once sleepy towns, cities near the Colombian borders have become hubs for refugees as people wait for buses. Locals often charge migrants three to four times the previous amount for food, says Gumbs. Despite Darién being home to numerous endangered species including jaguars, macaws, and tapirs, garbage from the flow of people is everywhere, further threatening the animals and their habitat.

In 2020, Panamanian authorities blamed migrants for burning down reception centers in La Peñita, close to the Colombian border, and in Lajas Blancas, by the border with Costa Rica. In March, 44 migrants were arrested following a brawl that damaged part of a support center in San Vicente.

“The population in general is very upset [that so many people are passing through Darién],” said Jocabed Solano Miselis, a missionary to Panama’s indigenous peoples. “It’s not xenophobia, it’s the exhaustion of local resources.”

A new situation

Migration won’t be a top issue for most Panamanian evangelical voters, most of whom see the strongest connection between their faith and a socially conservative agenda. These convictions have led growing numbers to run for seats in Panama’s National Assembly and in city government.

“For many years, churches and Christians stayed away from politics, positioning themselves as intercessors,” said pastor César Forero of the New Life Family Restoration Center in Panama City.

But in 2014, the government announced a new sex education law that evangelicals believed would open the door for schools to teach pro-LGBT messages. Over the course of two years, pressure groups formed, and evangelicals teamed up with Catholics to organize in opposition.

“I thought that if we didn’t have about 10,000 people in a march, the law would pass,” said Burgos. “We had about 300,000 show up.”

After the government backed down in 2016, Panamanian Christians discovered a political strength they had previously never imagined. In the last general election in 2019, candidates began publicly identifying themselves as evangelicals.

Now, in 2024, “many of the aspirants are proposing pro-family policies,” said Forero. This includes trying to introduce a ban on same-sex marriage and advocating against issues like abortion and euthanasia, none of which are legal in Panama and currently face no proposals trying to legalize them.

In this regard, Panama already boasts some of Latin America’s most socially conservative legislation. Last February, the Supreme Court upheld a decision affirming that marriage is between a man and a woman. In April of this year, a coalition of LGBTQ organizations asked candidates to sign a pact expanding the rights of their community, including guaranteeing support for same-sex marriage. Seven of the eight presidential candidates declined to sign the document.

In the week leading up to the elections, the Evangelical Alliance of Panama called for a day of fasting and prayer on May 1 and asked Christians to judge candidates by several criteria, including fear of God, track record of transparency, pro-life stance, defense of the traditional family, concrete solutions to issues like education and health, fight against corruption, and desire to build a better country. Corruption, and crimes related to it, appears to be a main concern for voters. Last year, previous president Martinelli, who was current candidate Mulino’s mentor, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for money laundering.

In general, Latin American evangelicals vote for right-wing candidates, but public Panamanian polls do not include a religious affiliation question, so it’s not clear which candidate will have the most support from believers.

For the hundreds of thousands crossing the jungle on foot, however, there are decisions that are more urgent—and the results from the ballot can make a difference

“We believe in God’s justice, and justice relates to the dignity of individuals, both citizens and immigrants,” said Solano Miselis.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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