Panel Transcript: Panama's Darien Gap

The Migration Chokepoint


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Darien Gap Map

Event Summary

The Center for Immigration Studies hosted a panel discussion on December 7, 2021, exploring the remote area of the Darien Gap, the infamous jungle passage through which extra-continental migrants cross from South America to North America on their way to the United States southern border. International migrants are passing through the gap’s dense rainforest in record numbers. How is it impacting the indigenous people of Panama who have populated this area for thousands of years?

Panelists bring personal stories and information from the Darien Gap area. The Honorable Francisco Agapi, Mayor of Cémaco, Panama and a member of the Embera tribe, flew in from Panama for his first visit to Washington, D.C. He has firsthand experience with the physical and cultural impact of mass migration on the indigenous tribes in the area he serves. Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-WI), a member of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, spent several days earlier this year in the Darien Gap on a fact finding trip. Michael Yon, an award winning war correspondent, has spent months in the area recording stories and documenting through writing and photographs the impact of migration.


The Honorable Francisco Agapi serves as the Mayor of Cémaco, Panama, which is located near Darien province, home to the Darien Gap - a region dominated by rainforest, rivers and swamps. This area encompasses the reservations of seven indigenous tribes, including the largest tribe, the Embera, of which Agapi is a member.

Representative Tom Tiffany represents the 7th Congressional District of Wisconsin and serves on the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship and the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.

Michael Yon is an award winning war correspondent. Since January, Michael has studied migration on the ground in Morocco, Greece, Lithuania, Colombia, Panama, Mexico, and the United States.

Todd Bensman (Moderator), the Center’s Texas-based Senior Research Fellow, traveled extensively through Panama three years ago investigating how special interest aliens move through Panama.

TODD BENSMAN: OK. We’re going to get started. Thank you, everybody, for coming to this event.

We’re here to draw attention to an aspect of the national border crisis, the mass-migration crisis that gets far too little attention in terms of its impacts on U.S. national security and on the migrant flow as a humanitarian crisis. We wanted to choose to talk about the Darien Gap, which is a wild jungle passage that connects South America to North America, as a migrant route.

The numbers of migrants, as a lot of you already know, have hit historic heights overall that have reached the border, 1.7 million as of the end of October. It’s probably closer to 1.9 million once we get the November numbers in. The vast majority of those migrants are from Central America and Mexico. However, we draw attention to the Darien Gap because probably another record is that migrants from 150 different countries also are coming in the greatest percentages that we’ve seen.

The way that those migrants are reaching our border is often to fly into South America and make their way to Colombia. We have a map up here that kind of shows the general idea. We are looking at a large number of South Americans, such as Brazilians and Ecuadorans and the like, but we also are seeing a tremendous number of people from outside the hemisphere and also from Haiti – huge numbers from Haiti and Cuba, the Caribbean – but also from places like Syria, Pakistan, all the countries of the Middle East, a great many countries of central Africa, northwest and northeast Africa – the Mauritanians, Senegalese, people from countries that are afflicted by terrible tribal warfare. We don’t know who these people are.

We talk about the Darien Gap as a route that is a diplomatic problem for the United States as much as it is a border-control issue because there are three countries that are involved: Colombia – primarily Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica. Those three countries form what we call a chokepoint, a bottleneck, a place where this migration could be stopped or retarded or reduced if we needed to or wanted to do that, if somebody were to pay attention to the issue here.

Why should we pay attention? Two main reasons.

One is national security. A lot of the countries that I just mentioned are places of terrorism concern, tribal warlordism, terrible human rights problems. We don’t know whether the people who are coming are perpetrators or victims. We don’t know who they are at all. They drop their ID cards often at the border before they cross. And that leaves us to try to figure it out. That’s a national security issue for the United States. The numbers – according to The New York Times, which actually went down there this year – are 100,000. In a normal year, you’re looking at about 8,000, 7,000. A hundred thousand this year alone.

A great many of those migrants I’ve interviewed, they tell me that they’re coming because Joe Biden opened the border and he’s nicer, and that’s the reason that they’re coming. And they’re dying along the way, as well.

With that, I wanted to bring – I’m very proud to have Francisco Agapi here, who flew in from Panama, from the – he lives in the Darien Gap. These are our three panelists. He’ll start us off. He serves as the mayor of Cemaco, Panama, which is located in – near the Darien province, which is home to the Darien Gap on the Panama side. This is a region that is wilderness – no cellphone service, electricity, nothing out there. And the Embera people live a traditionalist lifestyle, and they are in the middle of this mass migration through that gap. And I’m very happy that he’s here and that he traveled all this way to share the tribe’s experience with that.

We also have Michael Yon, who is an award-winning war correspondent. I brought Michael in because he spent four months in the Darien Gap and in the jungle and with the indigenous peoples there and among the migrants, and has a lot of firsthand experience with the situation. Michael has studied migration from the ground in Morocco, Greece, Lithuania, Colombia, Panama, Mexico, and he also has spent a lot of time with the Panamanian police and the migrants and NGOs down there. Very knowledgeable about what’s happening on both sides, Colombia and Panama.

And lastly, we’re very happy to have Representative Tom Tiffany, a freshman from Wisconsin, a northern state. He is here because he understands that southern border security is national security, to include his northern state of Wisconsin. And he went to the Darien Gap on his own earlier this year in the canoes in the jungle and out with the indigenous people to see firsthand what was happening. He serves on the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship and the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.

And we’re very happy to have these three panelists here. I’ve also spent quite a bit of time in Panama and in Costa Rica with the migrants.

And with that, I’d like to turn it over to Francisco over on the far end. He has an interpreter, Carlos, who’s going to help him translate his messaging. Francisco?

(Note: Mayor Agapi’s remarks are made through an interpreter.)

MAYOR FRANCISCO AGAPI: Buenos dias. Good morning.

Francisco Agapi, mayor of Cemaco in the district of Darien.

MR. BENSMAN: I don’t think his mic is working. (Pause.) It’s working? OK.

MAYOR AGAPI: In the district of Darien. Thank you, first, for the invitation to talk about the problem of immigration.

My population, the Indian population, we live in the border between Colombia and Panama. The issue of immigration, maybe I’m not the right person to speak about it, but there is an issue that you guys are probably aware of. It’s an immigration issue that has showed up in Panama, but it’s worldwide and it has been pretty prevalent in the last few years. Especially in the last few months, it’s been a terrible problem for us.

The problem that we have there is that we have a community. The community is called Bajo Chiquito, and it’s about 2(00) to 300 occupants. That is the first port of entry when they come out of the Darien Gap, and there are more migrants than there are people that live in Bajo Chiquito.

MR. BENSMAN: They walk right there to go to Bajo Chiquito. Right there.

MAYOR AGAPI: One of the first problems that we have is that our stores, we can’t keep the resources full so that we can feed our own people because of all the migrants that are coming through the gap.

Our agricultural fields is also a problem. The problem with the agriculture is that our people are now focused on transporting the migrants out of Bajo Chiquito instead of focusing on their agrarian lifestyle that they had prior to this.

We have juvenile problems. We’ve got a lot of violence. We have a lot of robberies. And now, because they have a lot of money from these migrants, then we have alcoholism also becoming a problem amongst our youth.

Those are our social problems. We also have environmental problems. We also have the problems with our rivers. The people – our people, my people – live along the river and it’s contaminated. We have trash. We have feces.

There’s also a problem where the migrants have to cross the river to come into Bajo Chiquito. If the river has grown, many of them drown, get swept away by the river, and they just – they remain in the river. Then I have to go and address the community and figure out how we’re going to solve this problem because it’s not just my problem; it’s everybody’s problem in that community.

So here we are so we can discuss this. Thank you.

MR. BENSMAN: OK. Thank you, Francisco. I forgot to mention for those of you who are live – watching the livestream, if you have questions for Francisco or any of the panelists you can email [email protected].

And with that, we’ll pass it to Michael Yon.

MICHAEL YON: Hello. Yes. I’m Michael Yon. I’m a war correspondent.

My year started off here in Washington, D.C., at the Capitol attack, whatever you want to call it. And did not go inside, but that was quite interesting. And then was here for the inauguration, and then flew straight to the border. So flew straight to – within 24 hours, I was at the El Paso border with Mexico and watching the immediate influx of migrants after the inauguration. The Border Patrol was immediately being overwhelmed within the first week.

And so I was down in Mexico and all across the border on the southern part, and then finally flew down to Colombia because Colombia, we knew that the Darien Gap flow was going to increase. So I flew down there with Chuck Colton and Masako here. And we flew down to Colombia, and – because Colombia’s where they gather to go through the Darien Gap. And as you know, Darien Gap is a critical funnel point.

Now, how do they get to South America and why do they go to South America? They go to South America because many of the people that want to come in cannot get visas to start off in a place like Mexico. So they start in Suriname, or they start in Brazil, or they start in Ecuador. So those are the three countries they start in. A lot of them end up in places like Chile, where they get – they live there for years. A lot of these ID cards, for instance, we pick up off the ground – before they come into the United States, they throw them down on the ground.

So they’ll come to South America, and we’re talking people from at least a hundred countries. Like, I’ve met people from Nepal and India. And one guy I was out in the jungle on the Colombia side in the – in the Darien Gap and he looked like a Sikh up on the mountain. I said, Sikh man, you know? And he goes, how did you know? And I said, well, I’ve been to Punjab, because I’ve been to most – many of the countries where they’re from. I’ve spent years in Asia and around the world. And so – and I said, how did you get here? And he came through Netherlands and, oh, planes, trains, and automobiles, and now he’s out in the jungle waiting for other Sikh friends, and he said he was going to California if he makes it. So that was on the Colombia side.

So they filter in. Many of the – especially Haitians and Cubans represent maybe 50 percent of the people coming through the Darien Gap, and many of those go straight to Suriname, and then they often filter through Chile. Many of the Haitians have lived in Chile for years, as you can see from their ID cards and the many interviews that we’ve done. And then they finally go to here – mostly here, a place called Necocli. And we went to Necocli. And they board boats, which we did too, and they go here, Capurgana. And from here, some of them will take boats and go across – not very many; very few.

Most go across right here, and this is very remote. There’s more than 60 miles of no roads. That’s why they call it the gap, right, the Darien Gap. This is the Darien isthmus, the Isthmus of Panama. And so it’s called the gap because there’s no roads for more than 60 miles. This is some of the roughest jungle on Earth. It’s very biologically active, to put it lightly. That’s why we have a screwworm facility up here which is – this is where we stop the – if you know what screwworms are. If you’re in agriculture and cattle and that sort of thing, it’s a really big deal for us to stop the screwworms right here, right? And so we – so we’ve got a very expensive program that drops flies down here that have been irradiated and are sterile to try to stop the screwworms. So this is a channel point for more than just migrants; it’s also a biological chokepoint. Down here, we see CCP – or let’s say PRC. China is denuding the jungle. You see giant trees that they’re cutting down. And you know, yellow fever, the whole works is out there.

So bottom line is, huge amounts of people, maybe 100,000 this year, come through here. They go through three – the Continental Divide, by the way, goes right through. So the Continental Divide, of course, starts way up north of us now, and – or, you know, goes up – well, it’s the Continental Divide. And so, as you know, the Continental Divide is where all the water from one side goes to one ocean and the other side goes to the Pacific, right? And so they cross these three little mountains up here, finally the Continental Divide. And the third mountain is called the Montaña de la Muerta, the Mountain of Death, and that’s where a lot of them die. They fall or they get lost. There’s many people that are stuck out there. They’re stuck right now. There’s always people stuck out there because they can’t go any further. They get hurt or whatever.

And for instance, one man – I call him 22 days. His Cuban wife had left him. As soon as Biden became president, she struck off for America and he followed her from Ecuador. And he’s stuck out there. He got left behind and she left him behind. She made it to Texas, by the way, and left him, and he was out there dying in the jungle. And he said, you know, the mosquitoes were so bad he was using his wife’s perfume to, you know, keep them off. And I was like, this is like out of a movie. He’s like, yes, yes, the very bad movie. The black birds were landing around me, you know, and my wife, she left me in the jungle. And you know, the big black birds, you know the ones that eat the flesh? And I said, yeah. (Laughs.) There’s more – there is more vultures out there than I’ve seen anywhere in the world. And I guess – I mean, there is – a lot of people die out there.

And you know, there’s – we think about 10 percent of the people that go through die. There’s no way for us to know the true numbers because we don’t know how many leave Necocli and we don’t know how many actually come out through Bajo Chiquito. But after being down there for months and interviewing just tons of people – hundreds – I’m going to guess 10 percent die out there. And if 100,000 people came through this year, that’s 10,000 people. So you can imagine how much those vultures have to eat. And I’m not sure if that’s why the vultures are there, but it’s a strange amount of vultures.

But anyway, so you got a lot of people that get lost out there. They finally come through Bajo Chiquito. They have – they emerge out here where I met Francisco. Actually, I met Francisco through missionaries. Any time I go to a place like this I look for the missionaries. That’s why we call them Christians In Action, CIA; they know everything. (Laughter.) And the missionaries introduced me to Francisco, and so I spent a lot of time with Francisco rolling around many jungles. I was out in about 20 jungles, probably, or 20 villages – Embera villages. Those are his people. So they – and I was out in about 10 with Francisco. And Francisco took us all out to Bajo Chiquito. I’ve been out there six times. And so – but I spent about four months out here.

And so now his people, Francisco’s people, are actually the ones – you’ve heard about the Indians out there that are raping and murdering the people that come through. So the causes of death for the people that come through are usually the Mountain of Death, or they get lost, waterborne illnesses, something else might hit them – yellow fever – out there, anything. There’s all kinds of problems. And also floods. When they finally get to the river, their bodies come washing down in their tents wrapped up. I mean, flash floods are pretty intense there.

And Francisco’s people, Embera people, are – so when you hear about the Indians raping and robbing, that’s what Francisco’s trying to stop. Because they have so many people coming through, some of his Embera people are out there literally on horseback like Comanches and raping and robbing. And he wants to stop this, but it’s very difficult to do, right?

And so, now, the Panamanian authorities will tell you they can’t close down the migration route, which is completely false because during the pandemic they shut it off. It was finished, right? I mean, there was not even a drop coming through during the pandemic. Panama locked down like North Korea for the pandemic, right? So we know that they can shut it off, period.

But interestingly, even our, you know, serious people don’t know much about what’s going in the Panama Canal. For instance, I was telling Dave Petraeus about it. I said, I’m down in Darien. And he said, what are you down there for? You should be up in Mexico or the Northern Triangle. I said, well, you know if I’m here – (laughs) – it’s – there’s a reason why I’m here. I don’t waste my time.

And this is a serious, you know – for intelligence and every other reason in the world, this is where we need to focus assets. We can shut off probably 20 percent of the people coming through right here. And also, the people that are going to come in and blow up a mall, they’re more likely to come through here than they are through the Northern Triangle, right? This is where the people are coming in from Yemen. This is where people come in from – many Pakistanis and that sort of thing. I meet Bangladeshis out there. And so this is it. This is – this is your chokepoint. And there’s many ways to track them. For instance, they come through Bajo Chiquito, which is Francisco’s people, right? This is very easy to shut off.

And so that’s why I’ve been down there. And of course, I could – I could talk about this for several days, but – and I know we don’t have much time, so I should turn it back to you.

MR. BENSMAN: Thank you. Very interesting. If anybody has questions, save them for when we get to the question-and-answer part.

At this point I’ll turn it over to the congressman, who was down there.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM TIFFANY (R-WI): Yeah. Thank you very much, Todd.

And so on January 20th, the Biden administration unleashed a humanitarian and national security debacle like we haven’t seen in a long, long time, and it all traces back to January 20th with the end of Remain in Mexico sending a very clear message across the world that anybody that wants to come to the United States can come to the United States and we basically have a borderless United States at this point, in particular on the southern border.

The reason I went down to Panama, I had went to – had went to the Rio Grande in early April, saw what was happening there. The Border Patrol said, you really should look deeper than this where many of these people are coming from. And I really got to thinking about that, and my staff said, hey, what do you think of taking a vacation down to Panama? I’ve always wanted to go to Panama on vacation. (Laughter.) And took them up on it, and we were fortunate to get together with these folks to my left to be able to go down there and really see what’s happening.

And by the way, the gentleman interpreting over here on our far left, that’s Carlos Goetz. He’s on my staff. And thank the Lord we had him down there in Panama. He was – (laughs) – a very valuable member of our team. Right, Michael?

MR. YON: Oh yeah.

REP. TIFFANY: Yeah, yeah.

MR. YON: When you said you had a retired Marine officer, infantry, was an Afghanistan veteran, I said – (laughter) – we need him. (Laughs.) It was perfect.

REP. TIFFANY: So it was great.

But I want to thank Francisco for hosting us down there. Thank you very much, and it was a great tour that we went on.

So we flew in to Panama City and went down to the gap with Michael, with Francisco, and then with some of my staff and others. And the first thing that I noticed when we got to the village of Bajo Chiquito, the morning that we took off we got in Peraguaz (ph) I think is how they pronounce it, is it?

MR. : Yeah, Peraguaz (ph).

REP. TIFFANY: Peraguaz (ph). And we went up the river to the village of Bajo Chiquito. The first thing that I noticed when we got to the village of Bajo Chiquito and we got out of the Peraguaz (ph) was the smell. And we went in and we met with the village leaders there, as well as having Francisco along with us, and these people talked about how, you know, they bathe a couple times a day in the river. We heard Francisco allude to that earlier. But their village is overrun at this point, and it was not that way before. And you can tell these people are very clean people. The reason that we smelled the stench that we did is because of the unleashing of the migrants that the Biden administration caused with their order on January 20th.

And they verified that for us. When we sat down and had a good meeting with the local villagers, including the head of the village, they shared the story of how at times they have like a thousand people a night that will be going through that village. So the village of Bajo Chiquito – give the clicker there a second once again, Michael – the village of Bajo Chiquito, right off from the Darien Gap, it is the first place where people will come out of the gap or through the jungle and then continue on down. And so there is as many as a thousand migrants that were going through there a night and just simply overwhelming the village. And you heard from Francisco earlier some of the harm that is being done as a result of all those people that are coming through, and terribly unfortunate.

The other thing that I would comment about as we go forward here – and we’re going to take some questions – is your government, those of you that are citizens of the United States of America, is basically complicit in the biggest human trafficking operation that’s gone on, I believe, in the history of the world.

But there’s others that are complicit in it also, and I need – I think they need to be thoroughly investigated, including OIM or IOM, however they go, the Organization for International Migration, which is a United Nations outfit. I think there needs to be a thorough – a thorough review of what their activities are. And I’ve also been urging when I do local news interviews is that those people who are involved with faith-based organizations – including Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, the Jewish organizations – you need to go back and talk to them and ask them what is going on here and how they are involved, because they are part of the chain at this point when you do the resettlement. Because I was also very active in talking about what happened at Fort McCoy and the other forts where the Afghan evacuees came through. IOM is right there at this moment working in those forts to resettle people across our country. And I believe that they are heavily incentivized with the amount of money that they make to make this happen, and is it in the interest of the American people that they are doing this? This is a question we need to get to the bottom – that we need to get to the bottom of.

So, and finally before I turn it back to Todd here, while this is clearly a humanitarian crisis – when we were in Bajo Chiquito, they talked about babies washing down the river and you know, just a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. But for us in Congress, I believe our number-one concern should be national security because it is clear with open borders the way they are – and the Border Patrol shares the stories with us all the time. We heard the story of the couple Yemenis that came in earlier in the country that had terror ties. You know there are people that have terrorist ties that are coming into our country, and the Biden administration is doing very little if anything to stem that flow.

MR. BENSMAN: OK. Thank you.

At this point we can begin to take questions for any of the panelists. And if I could, I just have one I’d like to open it up with to Francisco real quickly. You mentioned briefly in your remarks that your people now are earning income – large income – to an extent that you haven’t previously, and that there’s been a – hinted that there’s been a corrupting kind of influence. Can you elaborate on what that income has done socially with – to your tribe?

MAYOR AGAPI: Yes. Thank you. The problem is that, honestly, the immigrants bring money with them. That money is used to pay for transportation and other resources from Bajo Chiquito to Lajas Blancas, where they catch a bus. They charge $25 a head. So if you can imagine, $25 times 100 for my population, that’s a lot of good money for the people of Bajo Chiquito or surrounding vehicles. So that’s the source of the problem.

First problem is alcohol, especially in our younger generation. So when they become alcoholics, then it becomes a family problem between married couples and families. And so a lot these young folk leave Bajo Chiquito and go all the way to the city, Panama City, with that money that they’ve gotten. And with that money, then they go to Panama City and buy drugs so that they can then sell/distribute. So this has become a pretty ginormous social issue for us.

(Continues in Spanish with no interpretation.) (Laughter.)

MR. BENSMAN: OK. Thank you. We can –

REP. TIFFANY: Let me add one thing real quickly. When we were at Bajo Chiquito, they had a beautiful little school there, the kids going to school, and they just had an event going on that day where they were doing a presentation, and it was just wonderful to see that happening. But you could see how they had to segregate that off from their city – their village square, where they had all these people who were squatting, defecating, hundreds of people doing something like that right in their village, which was so unfortunate to see that happen – see that happening.

And we asked them: Did you have this problem before? And they said, we’ve always had migrants coming through our village but nothing like the scale of the last – of the scale of 2021.

MR. BENSMAN: Thank you.


Q: First, Francisco, bienvenidos a Washington.


Q: I actually have a two-part question. So the first part is for Francisco. I’m curious if the influx of migrants is starting to spread into the neighboring Guna tribes, if they’re also starting to experience the same problems.

And then, for Michael, the second part of the question is: Is SENAFRONT, the frontier police for Panama, are they basically ceding control of the Darien Gap to migrants and criminal organizations?

MR. BENSMAN: Hold that – remember that part of the question and we’ll go Francisco first. It’s a good question.

MAYOR AGAPI: (Speaks in Spanish.)

CARLOS GOETZ: So he’s saying that this immigration has – over the last few months it has bled over into some of the other districts. And more recently, they’ve created other routes that are easier to get to some of these other districts as well. So that immigration is actually bleeding over into other tribes.

Q: Gracias, Francisco.

MR. BENSMAN: Michael?

MR. YON: On the SENAFRONT, SENAFRONT is the Panamanian border police. They’re very professional. They’ve been trained by U.S. forces for years. They’re really squared away. And needless to say, I’ve made inroads and we could actually get one of their commanders to come – we could have had one sitting here today, actually, and they could tell you what they’re doing. But they have not ceded control, but it is – you know, it’s the Darien Gap, you know. It’s a proper jungle. And they do have a base right here. I rented an airplane and flew right here with Masako, actually, because we couldn’t get – there’s no Google Earth photos or anything like that of Bajo Chiquito. So we rented an airplane and made our own. And so – because before we took you guys out, I wanted to know – didn’t want to get you killed or something, you know? Just – (laughter) – it’s bad for my reputation.

REP. TIFFANY: I appreciate that. (Laughter.)

MR. YON: To lose – you know, go Jonestown out here with some congressmen. (Laughter.) So – (laughs) – and so, you know, it was a little dangerous what you did, so. (Laughter.) And so – and so, but you know, there are SENAFRONT bases out here and they’ve got a special operations force. I’ve been all out in this part as well. And they don’t cross over here so much, though.

But they haven’t ceded control, but they – you know, the SENAFRONT could stop them. If Panamanian authorities said stop them, they would be stopped. There’s no question about it. But they just haven’t been given that order.

MR. BENSMAN: And if I can add to that from my experience in Panama in the Darien area, the Panamanian government as a matter of policy has SENAFRONT collecting these migrants, gathering them up, and bringing them into what I call hospitality camps where they provide all the basic necessities and medical attention and the rest. And then they arrange for bus transportation for all of them in an organized way to the north into Costa Rica, which is rinse, wash, and repeat; the Costa Ricans do this as well. This is a formal policy. They call it controlled flow.

Up until COVID, they were under orders to carry out controlled flow with the migrants as official government policy. And then, when COVID broke out, they were told to shut the border down and they did. So SENAFRONT could control the border if – because it’s a chokepoint. I mean, you can see from the map. But the government stance is to do the exact opposite, to move them through.

REP. TIFFANY: You know, it’s very much like a pipeline. It is so ironic. January 20th, what’s the first two executive orders from the Biden administration? One, shut down Keystone. Shut down a pipeline that gets us energy independence in America, but open up the pipeline from Panama. (Laughter.) And it – and it acts exactly as a pipeline.

What you heard Todd describe there – for those of you who are familiar with pipelines, they have pumping stations, right? These are pumping stations. You go from Panama up to Costa Rica. Costa Rica pumps them up to Nicaragua. And it works its way up just like a pipeline.

MR. BENSMAN: And also, the Colombians are complicit. They work in close coordination as a government with the Panamanians and the Costa Ricans. They all work to make sure that the flow is smooth and not too big of a buildup in Colombia or any of those countries.

REP. TIFFANY: Mark, before you ask your question, real quick, I want to ask a question to Todd. When you’ve been at those camps, have you seen the International Organization for Migration? Have they been at any of those camps?

MR. BENSMAN: Actually, on my trips I did not see any down there.


MR. BENSMAN: But I know that they had NGOs in and around the area.

REP. TIFFANY: Because it’s really interesting, I’ve seen them at the southern border. I saw them in – we saw them down in Panama. I saw them at Fort McCoy also. They are everywhere doing these resettlements of these mass migrations.

MR. YON: Also on that, I – this year – I look – I try to develop context on everything, so I study. I was in Morocco this year studying weaponization of migration, Greece, and Bulgaria. And then, when Belarus started pumping people into Lithuania, I flew straight from Africa to Lithuania, right? I happened to be with the Lithuanian Army in Afghanistan, so I kept my contacts, and so I just spent three weeks with their intelligence people and their army and their border patrol. You know, Belarus is – Lukashenko, the dictator, is pumping people into Lithuania and trying to push them across into Poland. I lived in Poland two years. I know Poland’s not going to take them into the – (laughs). But OIM immediately showed up.

And I told their – the Lithuanian Army and intel guys, like, watch, OIM will show up, NRC will show up – Norwegian Refugee Council. It’s a(n) ecosystem that follows them around.


MR. YON: It’s not just affecting us; it’s affecting everybody.


Q: Yeah. I have a couple of – well, main question is, why isn’t the Panamanian government shutting this down? Maybe the mayor has some ideas or maybe Michael does. And also, are there larger organizations – whether they’re drug cartels or just human-smuggling organizations – that kind of have authority and power over the area?

MR. YON: Oh, I – yeah. Yeah. Definitely. I mean, there’s cartels. For instance – for instance, right here at Capurgana or here at Necocli, you can see people are making money every step of the way. I liked what Tom said, pumping stations. And it’s not just one cartel. I was talking with Bannon about this at one point, Steve Bannon, and he’s like, oh, there’s no cartels pumping. And I was like, yes, they are. But it’s just different ones. And once you get over here, they hand them off to some others. We filmed some of them going up into the jungle. It’s just different groups.

Finally, they get into Francisco’s people. These aren’t Francisco’s people right here. This is a different group that we flew out and talked with coyotes here. But then once they get past here and they go over the Continental Divide, then they come into the Embera people and they come into Francisco’s people. They take their share, they – in various ways, robbery and also charging them for boat rides and whatnot. And then the SENAFRONT picks them up in Bajo Chiquito, which is under control of Francisco, and then they go on boats for several hours and they go to three different camps.

And in these camps, that’s where OIM meets them – or actually, OIM meets them in Bajo Chiquito as well. And the SENAFRONT then pumps them up – they put them on buses and they take them to Costa Rica. And that’s the controlled flow program between Costa Rica and Panama.

Q: Once they’re into Panama I get Panama’s interest in moving them along. Why isn’t the Panamanian government or why aren’t we twisting their arms to shut it down?

MR. YON: I call it HOP – human osmotic pressure, right? There’s the push and there’s the pull, right? And one of the things I’ve found in all these border areas I go to around the world, there is no wall big enough to stop the HOP, right? You need three different things. You need a barrier, you need people to guard that barrier, and you need the political will to stop them.

At the Darien Gap, with probably 10 percent dying going through much less – you won’t believe the casualties we see, the injuries – they still come. Over in Morocco, they’re going to Ceuta and Melilla, those two cities, and they go across the Med. It’s just every – it’s the same. When I grew up in Florida, they were coming across from Cuba.

So they can stop them, but when we’re throwing the corn in the United States we’re feeding the pigeons. I mean, they’re going to get through. I mean, if you offered me $450,000, I could get through the gap, you know? And so it’s – and it doesn’t matter if it’s really offered. For instance, Chuck Colton, somebody that you know well – is a war correspondent. I was just in Morocco with Chuck. He was just in Syria. He just got back from Syria to Panama. When Chuck was in Syria, he just told me that people were talking about that $450,000 as if it were true. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not; they think it’s true and so it’s psychological corn. They’re going to go for it and a certain percentage are going to make it.

But Panama can definitely cut them down because they’ve got easy chokepoints and they do have the Darien Gap as a baffle, right? But they’re making money.

MR. BENSMAN: I’d like to – I’d like to get Francisco’s take on that question, too, just with a little bit of an angle to it. Is the – do you feel that the Panamanian government is aware of the stresses that this is causing on your people? And what messaging do you have for your government in Panama to stop – to protect your people?

MAYOR AGAPI: So, as it relates to the Panamanian government, I wouldn’t know what to tell you on their approach or how they’re looking at this.

MR. BENSMAN: So – I’m sorry.

MAYOR AGAPI: But I do know – I know that stopping the immigration into Panama would be another problem, another chaos, because the migrants go through many different paths to get to the interior of Panama. I know that the government has tried, as far as I know, to slow the migration down with the SENAFRONT, their border patrol, and it’s been impossible.

We had an experience during the pandemic. We tried to stop – or, Panama tried to stop all of the migration and in one of the communities the migrants came and created a disaster in that small village. So the migrants came and – in that village, because the migration was trying to be stemmed, they burned first-aid kids, they burned houses, they damaged property, cars. Finally, the people just gave up and let the migrants pass. So that would cause a lot of problems for us.

MR. YON: You were in that village, by the way.

MR. BENSMAN: Francisco, there are a great many human rights organizations and nongovernmental organizations that are concerned with protecting indigenous tribes from external pressures and stresses like this. Have you heard from any American human rights organizations that are concerned with indigenous peoples at all to date about what’s happening?

MAYOR AGAPI: Until now, nobody has reached out to me. But thank God that, you know, this is my first time with you guys and you guys have reached out to us.

I just want to mention something as it relates to human rights. I was in the prosecutor’s office because of the issue of using weapons in indigenous populations, firearms. My people, grandparents, they pass it down from generation to generation, long rifles. Some of those weapons are being mishandled by some of our young folk and they are using them instead of for hunting to go and rob people.

So the prosecutor traces back the ownership of the weapon and they actually charge the grandfather, the grandmother, the older folks that actually had the weapon, not the actual person that was in possession of the weapon during the commission of the crime, because the SENAFRONT and/or the prosecution or the police department believe that the elders are renting these weapons out to these young folk so that they can go commit these crimes. So when I have to present myself in front of the prosecution, they’re accusing me that I am essentially like the godfather of this operation and I am renting these weapons out.

So one of the rights that we’re fighting for, human rights, is just our sustenance, because a lot of these immigrants are passing through our fields. They take a lot of our crop, so a lot of folks are without food, without crops. And we’re the only ones that are fighting for this. There are no other organizations that are recognizing that this is a problem and fighting for us. There are no organizations that are fighting for our human rights.

MR. BENSMAN: Thank you. We have a couple more questions here.

Q: Mayor Agapi, thank you for being with us today. I don’t know if this thing’s on.

My question is for you, Mr. Yon, or anyone else who may have – (comes on mic) – or anyone else who may hold this knowledge in their mind. From a national security perspective, the regional hostile elements like the FARC 57th Front, the cartels from, you know, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico, are we seeing coordination between those organizations for the first time? And is there – is that creating a vacuum for sort of an – international hostile elements to come in further?

MR. YON: While he translates, I’ll mention a few things. Out here, I mean, we know drugs come through there, but as you know, drugs come in in a lot of ways. So that’s just one trail.

But out here, it’s mostly opportunistic, the people that live around here. I mean, it’s not like armed – I mean, there are the armed FARC out here, as you well know, right, and some of the FARC are definitely Francisco’s people. But a lot of it’s just the local villagers. Like, I have photographed some of the people doing the murders and rapes. I mean, they’ll – I mean, we know who some of them are, and they’re just local village guys. Because as you know, in life most criminality happens from people that live in that area, right, and this is certainly no different. You’re not going to be able to come in from Panama City or, you know, Medellin or someplace and go do criminality out here. That’s not your jungle. This is his jungle.

MR. BENSMAN: Francisco?

MAYOR AGAPI: I don’t know if there’s any coordination between different cartels, but I do know that some of my people have been involved in some of the criminality; that, you know, they get the immigration, push the drugs. That’s all I can say on that because I haven’t really investigated the different criminal elements of the potential cartels and whether there is coordination between them. But I do know that drugs have become more prevalent and the trafficking of drugs is also more prevalent. Thank you.

REP. TIFFANY: Well, I think you can count on it being a terrific recruiting tool for them because there’s so much money at stake. I mean, when we were in Bajo Chiquito, there’s a Western Union there. And you see that wherever you’re going in the pipeline, is there’s a way to access money. The money is simply enormous. And while I don’t have detailed insider information like what’s happening at the southern border, you hear all the stories about how the cartel controls the southern border and they control it for money. I mean, they make a tremendous amount of money off of it.

And you think – we alluded to the $450,000 payments. If anything like that would ever happen, you can count on the cartels are going to own that $450,000 or a very sizeable chunk of it.

MR. YON: Let me mention that Western Union and MoneyGram, that’s Bajo Chiquito, right? Out here in the jungle, there’s no phones, actually, there. You have to go to – one thing I’ve learned around the world is every remote village they know where is the closest place you can get cellphone connection. They’ll be like, you go put it on the bamboo pole up near that big tree. And there’s one here; they call it Cellphone Hill. But there’s actually – (laughter) – it’s not – yeah, it’s called Cellphone Hill, which – right outside Bajo Chiquito.

And so the actual Western Union is up in Panama City. So what happens is you go in, they’ll charge 20 percent in here. There’s no Western Union here. They have the sign up, and then you – somebody will send the Western Union to Panama City. They’ll send a text, which goes to Cellphone Hill. They walk down the hill into the village, and it’s the hawala system. You know hawala? You know, the Islamic system for money transfer? Basically, they’ll send a code like “pink rainbow” or something, you know, and then they’ll go into Bajo Chiquito and get their money, be charged 20 percent.

So that’s how they get – a lot of the migrants, they know they’re going to get robbed out here. Some women carry the morning-after pills. They know they’re going to get raped or whatever. And they’ll Western Union money to themselves so, when they come out there, they’ve already got money. Either their family does it – they have a problem getting it from the United States, by the way, so many people are doing the Western Unions from France and other places.

MR. BENSMAN: Much of which ends up in tribal hands and in a corrupting way.

We had another question.

Q: Yeah. So we were at the border together just recently, but Representative Tom Tiffany, can you tell us more about IOM/OIM – it’s both – this U.N. organization which is under the U.N. Human Rights Council, which China runs? How much of a coordinating role does this organization play with this human trafficking operation?

And also, Michael Yon, can you tell us a bit more of your research specifically on weaponization of migration?

REP. TIFFANY: So it’s a question that we need more answers to. And I know there are some of my colleagues in the House that are doing more digging on IOM or OIM, however you want to refer to them. And we need answers in regards to what this organization is doing.

It’s interesting because just a week ago I was in the Minneapolis airport flying out to Washington, D.C. Who did I see in the Minneapolis airport? It was a couple people with IOM vests on. And I believe they were probably sending evacuees who were at Fort McCoy, is what I would guess. They appeared to be Afghans and they were headed to – on the same flight as I was to Washington, D.C., and I overheard later that they were going to Washington, D.C. and then down to Tampa. I hope Governor DeSantis has the welcome mat out for them down there.

But what’s really interesting is I’ve seen them at every stop now. When I was down at the southern border at McAllen and then went down to Panama, I mean, they had a major facility, if you remember that big tent that they had set up. After the migrants would come out on the Peraguaz (ph) on the Turquesa River, they had a little community. Do you remember the name of that town that they were settled in? It’s where we stayed in that little motel.

MR. GOETZ: San Vicente.

MAYOR AGAPI: San Vicente.

REP. TIFFANY: So anyhow, they had a big camp set up there with tents and, you know, temporarily set up, and very prominently was a sign there that said IOM. And then, when I went to Fort McCoy at the end of August when they just started bringing in the evacuees from Afghanistan, it’s one of the things we heard from the commanding officer when we asked him what’s the process, things like that. He talked about, you know, the resettlement organizations – Catholic Charities, other faith-based organizations – but he also said that IOM will be here coordinating the handoff of the evacuees to those faith-based organizations.

They are – it’s very clear they have a critical role in the process of moving these people as – generally calling them migrants – into the United States. They have a critical role, and we need to get some answers as far as how they’re being compensated, what authority are they using. My understanding is that the State Department contracts with them to do this process, but we need a lot more answers because at this point, for the American people, they’re working in the shadows doing this and there needs to be much more sunlight that is put on this process.

MR. BENSMAN: We’re running a little short of time, so I’m going to – I’m going to intervene on completing that one just because –

MR. YON: I want to say something before you shut off.

MR. BENSMAN: OK. (Laughter.)

MR. YON: I was – as you can see, I’m going through ID cards and we have cards for – they give debit cards out for the U.N. So they’ll give you like $300 on a debit card.

REP. TIFFANY: Yeah. We were in Reynosa the week before last and watched the IOM hand out cash debit cards to migrants in a long line, $400 every two weeks and $800 a month, which is very –

MR. YON: It’s different amounts in different countries, right?

REP. TIFFANY: And it’s very sustaining. It keeps them in northern Mexico in beans enough to get over eventually.

MR. YON: But let me say something. These just got FedEx-ed in from somebody I paid in Mexico to collect these by the river. I was just down there and, well, these just came in. And so I’m just looking through the cards now. I’ve got another stack back here that I’ve already – and look what I just found: U.S. Department of Justice inmate ID. I just found this as we were talking. It’s got the guy’s name. This is a criminal, apparently, who was trying to get in. This is – look at that. It’s got his name. Literally, this is why I pay people to collect ID cards. (Laughter.) Yeah. I’m like, OK, there’s a new one.


Q: Yeah, I have a question for Representative – (off mic). I mean, you sit on the Immigration Subcommittee. How many representatives on the left and on the right are actually paying attention to the Darien Gap, educating themselves on the Darien Gap and on what you’re discussing about the IOM? Is it a conversation?

REP. TIFFANY: There’s starting to become more awareness. Not enough at this point, but certainly, like, Congressman Biggs is very – understands this quite well. But he’s got his hands full down on the border in Arizona and has been such a great resource for all of us. But I’m hearing that there are other representatives that are starting to take a look at we need to do this trip down to Panama, Central America, and South America.

And also, it’s heartening to know that Representative Gooden, he and his office are starting to look very deep into OIM. And I’m really looking forward to what they’re going to find.

But first of all, the majority right now should be having hearings on this. There should be hearings that are going on on this whole process to provide the sunshine that we’re talking about on this whole process and how it works. But if the majority won’t do it now, the majority in the next Congress will.

MR. BENSMAN: We have to wrap things up. We’re out of time. But I have another question for Francisco real quickly: Can you – do you have any message for American policymakers? You’re here in Washington. What would you tell them about what’s happening to your people and about this mass migration through your villages?

MAYOR AGAPI: My message is please pay attention. This is a joint effort. This is a problem for everybody and all the organizations that are involved, to include the politicians here. You can help us, at least a small bottle of water for my people. The issues of health, education, that ultimately has affected our kids. Our kids can’t even concentrate on education because we are overwhelmed with so many immigrants.

And we’ll be here and we’re going to confront this, and I invite you to come down to Darien personally so that you can see and I can introduce you to the Darien and our people down there. Welcome to Panama. Thank you.

MR. BENSMAN: OK. Thank you. And with that, we’ll wrap it up. Thank you for attending. And this will be on – is recorded and will be on our website, where it can be watched again and passed around and shared with folks who might have missed it. All right. (Applause.)