A Migrant Smuggling Boat Capsizes Off Panama, Leaving At Least 5 People Dead And 1 Missing

PANAMA CITY (AP) — At least five people died and the search continued for one more who was missing Thursday after a boat carrying more than two dozen migrants capsized off Panama’s Caribbean coast in an apparent attempt to avoid the treacherous Darien Gap land route.

Panama’s Public Safety Ministry said in a statement Thursday the boat carrying 27 people – mostly Afghans — capsized off the Guna Yala Indigenous area Wednesday. The dead included two women and a child.

The ministry said that at this time of year, bad weather is often a factor in such accidents, especially involving clandestine migrant smuggling attempts. Video from the government showed the open boat upside down on the rocky coast beside the migrants' bodies.

Public Safety Minister Juan Pino blamed Colombia's Clan del Golfo organized crime group for the failed migrant smuggling attempt.

“The traffickers send them out to sea regardless of bad weather and the rough seas and without life jackets,” Pino told the AP. “They come from so far to die on a route that by sea and through the jungle is full of risks.”

Crossing the Darien Gap, a jungle-covered land area between Colombia and Panama, used to take a week or more on foot. More established trails and more informal infrastructure supporting migrants have reduced the trek to about three days for many. More than 500,000 migrants crossed the gap last year, more than double the number in the previous year.

But risks remain, including bandits that rob, rape and sometimes kill migrants. Some migrants have turned to the costlier maritime route from Colombia to Panama.

Thousands of Afghan refugees entered Brazil last year, and some of those have later struck out to try to reach the United States.

According to Panama's National Immigration Service, some 326 Afghans crossed the Darien in January. In 2023, 4,267 Afghans entered Panama there, up from 2,220 in in 2022.