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Conservative immigration law enforcement crusader wins Panamanian presidential election

With 90% of the vote counted, José Raúl Mulino was ahead of other candidates with 34% of the vote

Newly elected President José Raúl Mulino of the Realizing Goals (RM) party participates in a walk in Panama City on April 16, 2024
Newly elected President José Raúl Mulino of the Realizing Goals (RM) party participates in a walk in Panama City on April 16, 2024 | EFE

May 6, 2024 8:59am

Updated: May 7, 2024 1:21pm

With almost all the ballots counted in the 2024 presidential election, Panamanian voters have elected former security minister and immigration law enforcement crusader José Raúl Mulino of the Realizing Goals party as their new head of state.

The development comes as a shock to some since Mulino entered the presidential race only after his running mate, conservative candidate Ricardo Martinelli, became ineligible as a candidate after his recent conviction for money laundering.

In addition to his status as a replacement candidate, Mulino, 64, grabbed headlines as part of a sweeping anti-immigration political campaign built on the promise to “close” the Darién Gap, a dense 575,000 kilometer jungle bridge that connects his country and Central America to Colombia and South America.

ADN has done extensive reporting the past two years about the Gap and how it has become a virtual highway for Venezuelan refugees fleeing the Maduro regime in hopes of reaching the southwest U.S. border.

Some migrants have been paying migrant travel companies to help them cross the dense jungle at rates ranging from $450 to $1,350.

In the process, Panama and other Central American countries such as Costa Rica have become part of a thoroughfare to reach their ultimate destination at the Mexican-American border.

As a result of the migration patterns, the Gap has suffered environmental downgrades from litter and constant human traffic, which has notably disrupted the natural landscape, polluted waterways and disturbed the ecosystem.

ADN has also reported that the number of migrants crossing the Gap has skyrocketed. According to prior ADN reporting, only 30,000 migrants crossed the Gap in 2016, compared to 133,726 in 2021, 248,284 in 2022 and about 320,000 2023.

Since last year, Panamanian authorities estimate more than half a million have crossed the natural land bridge.

Last August and September, ADN reported that Panamanian officials have been exploring ways to shut down the Gap to prevent continued exodus of migrants coming in from South America.

As Panama’s new president, Mulino will have to work with his country’s law enforcement and immigration enforcement apparatus to explore ways to blockade the wide jungle land bridge.

He will also most likely have to work with domestic and international environmental and ecological organizations to explore ways to clean up the pollution the area has suffered—and also develop solutions on how to address a drought that has obstructed shipping in the Panama Canal.  

The land bridge has continued to suffer pollution problems despite a decrease in deforestation in the Amazon forest in both Brazil and Colombia, according to an April 4 ADN report.

But that may all change now that Martinelli has won the presidential election and will be in a position to implement major policy shifts for the nation’s immigration policies. The former vice-presidential candidate has already insisted that he is his own man, telling the Panamanian people he is “no-one's puppet.”

During the election, Mulino refused to participate in televised presidential debates and quickly rose to the top of political polls. With 90% of the vote count in, reports indicate the conservative stand-in candidate has 34% of the votes, with opponents Ricardo Lombana at 25%, former President Martín Torrijos at 16% of the vote, and lawyer Rómulo Roux trailing at 11%.

Another four candidates all have less than 10% of the vote.

Other conservatives throughout the Western Hemisphere may see Mulino’s apparent victory as a sign of encouragement. The international media has already recognized his success the result of a strong shift toward fiscal conservatism.

Mulino has said as part of his presidency, he will make creating new investment opportunities a priority and also address the rising crime rates and concerns with drinking water quality.

“Mulino is thought to have been propelled to victory by voters who hope the country will return to the economic boom it experienced when Ricardo Martinelli was president from 2009 to 2014, writes the BBC in a Monday morning May 6 report.

Conservative voters in Panama have also begun celebrating. On Sunday, Mulino paid homage to his former running mate, telling a large group of  supporters, “Mission accomplished, Ricardo!” The newly elected president also told his countrymen that he would “work hard, very hard for Panama.”

Still, Mulino may have to earn the trust of some Panamanian voters.

He has told the people he will be “no one’s puppet,” but after casting his own vote on election day, he paid a visit to Martinelli in the Nicaraguan embassy. The ex-presidential candidate has been granted asylum by the Sandinista regime since the Panamanian appellate courts rejected his appeal to overturn his money laundering conviction.

He will take over from the outgoing president Laurentino Cotizo on July 1.

Executive Editor

Gelet Martínez Fragela

Gelet Martínez Fragela is the founder and editor-in-chief of ADN America. She is a Cuban journalist, television producer, and political refugee who also founded ADN Cuba.