PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Panama launched a police operation on Friday at its border with Colombia to fight organized crime and human smuggling linked to the growing flow of migrants crossing the dangerous jungle of the Darien Gap.
"Operation Choco" aims to stop transnational organized crime in the Darien by mobilizing aerial support and confronting crime groups "head on," Security Minister Juan Pino told a press conference.
"This no longer just a migration problem. It is affecting national security, not only in Panama but across the continent," Pino said, stressing that the initiative was "totally Panamanian."
In April, Panama joined Colombia and the United States in a pledge to increase joint actions against human traffickers in Darien Gap. Pino did not say whether the operation was in response to these commitments.
Under Operation Choco, the government will coordinate the rejection and return of migrants who do not meet Panama's entry requirements, and develop activities in communities receiving foreigners along the route, the security ministry said.
It will also implement strategies to protect the Darien National Park, the ministry said.
Oriel Ortega, the head of Panama's border service Senafront, said migrant trafficking is being organized on the Colombian side by the "narco-terrorist" Clan del Golfo criminal gang.
"Patrols are being reinforced. This is an effort wholly from the Panamanian state, because we are seeing that the situation of irregular migration is being exploited by transnational organized crime, which is profiting in the millions," he said.
More than 166,000 migrants have crossed the Darien so far this year, according to the security ministry, mostly children and teenagers.
(Reporting by Elida Moreno; Writing by Sarah Morland; Editing by William Mallard)