Panama bus accident kills at least 39 migrants

A bus carrying 66 people plunged off of a cliff in the worst accident involving migrants in Panama in a decade.

Workers assist those injured in the bus accident
Panama Civil Protection workers help people injured in an accident involving a bus that was carrying migrants who had travelled through the Darien Gap, in Los Planes de Gualaca, Panama on February 15 [Handout via Reuters]

Dozens of migrants have been killed in a bus accident in the Central American nation of Panama, where a bus carrying more than 60 migrants plunged off a cliff.

At least 39 migrants were killed and about 20 injured in the accident on Wednesday.  Officials have not shared information on the nationalities of those in the group, which had reportedly crossed the dangerous Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama.

“The Government extends its condolences to the families of those killed in this accident, and reiterates its commitment to continue providing humanitarian aid and decent conditions to deal with irregular migration,” Panama’s President Laurentino Cortizo said on Twitter.

Stretched thin by poor economic opportunities, natural disasters, and dangerous conditions in their home countries, migrants have embarked on perilous treks to reach countries where they believe they might find safety or a better life.

The Panamanian government typically moves migrants who have crossed the Darien Gap to a camp near the Costa Rica border on the other side of Panama. The migrants pay for the bus tickets, and there are usually two drivers as well as personnel from the National Immigration Service. The buses sometimes travel in convoys to make help keep people smugglers at bay, an immigration official at the scene said.

Samira Gozaine, director of Panama’s National Immigration Service, said that the bus had apparently missed the entrance to a migrant shelter, and was trying to turn around when it collided with another bus and went off a cliff.

The bus was transporting 66 people, and Panama’s health ministry said “more than five children” were among the injured, the AFP reported.

Several people were taken by ambulance to a hospital in the Chiriqui provincial capital city David, according to authorities, the AFP said.

It is the worst accident involving migrants in Panama in at least 10 years.

The Darien Gap is a notoriously perilous 96km (60-mile) stretch of jungle replete with wild animals, dangerous rivers and criminal gangs. Separating Colombia and Panama, it has seen an uptick in migrant activity, with nearly 250,000 making the trek last year. That represents a significant increase from 2021, when the total was nearly 134,000.

Jose Vicente Pachar, director general of the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences of Panama, told the AFP that at least 60 migrants died crossing the Darien Gap in 2022, up from 50 in 2021.

Many of those who cross are from Venezuela, where nearly seven million people have left since 2014 amid difficult economic and security conditions.

While Venezuelan refugees and migrants had previously flown to Mexico before trying to reach the United States border, new visa requirements in Mexico and other Central American countries have forced many to travel through the Darien Gap.

Some who make the crossing have taken to social media to document their experiences, contributing to an expanding and informal repository of information shared by those hoping to make the journey north.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies