Panama/Darien Gap
Panamanian president-elect Jose Raul Mulino (L) leaves the Presidential Palace after a meeting on Tuesday. AFP

Panama will deport US-bound migrants who enter the country through the notoriously dangerous stretch of jungle known as the Darien Gap, president-elect Jose Raul Mulino said Thursday.

"In order to do away with the odyssey that is the Darien Gap ... with international aid we will begin a process of repatriation, in full compliance with the human rights of all the people there," Mulino said in a speech to the election body that formally declared him president after last Sunday's polls.

The 165-mile (265-kilometer) Darien Gap, which lies on the border with Colombia to the south, has become a key corridor for migrants heading from South America through Central America and Mexico in hopes of reaching the United States and a chance at a better life there.

They face dense jungle, treacherous terrain, wild animals and violent criminal gangs that extort, kidnap and abuse them.

In 2023, a record 520,000 people -- most of them Venezuelans -- crossed through the gap. About 120,000 of them were children.

In 2022, 62 people died on the trek. The provisional count for 2023 stands at 34.

So many people come through the Darien Gap that the Panamanian government has set up facilities and earmarked resources to aid them.

But Mulino, a conservative lawyer aged 64, pledged during the election campaign that he would shut it down.

"Those who are down there (in South America) and those who would like to come, need to know that whoever arrives here is going to be sent back to their country of origin," Mulino said Thursday.

"Our Darien is not a transit route, no sir. It is our border."

Mulino is the protege of popular former president Ricardo Martinelli, who could not run because he lost an appeal against a money-laundering conviction.

Most Panamanians believe Martinelli will wield control from behind the scenes, according to a recent poll.

Mulino's election comes as the Central American country grapples with deep-rooted corruption, a severe drought that has hobbled the economically critical Panama Canal, and a stream of US-bound migrants passing through its jungles.

While most of those crossing the Darien are fleeing an economic crisis in Venezuela, migrants from Africa and Asia also use the remote rainforest in their bids to reach the United States.

"The border of the United States, instead of being in Texas, moved to Panama," Mulino, who served as security minister during Martinelli's 2009-2014 presidency, said last month.