Panama closes border with Colombia to stem migrant flow

Slideshow ( 4 images )

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Panama will close key crossings on its border with Colombia to prevent undocumented migrants from Cuba and Africa entering the country, President Juan Carlos Varela said on Monday.

“We’ve taken the difficult decision to close the border with Colombia in the Puerto Obaldia area and in other parts of the border to prevent the trafficking of illegal immigrants,” Varela said at the launch of an anti-drug trafficking operation.

Last week, Panama and Mexico agreed to airlift almost 3,500 Cubans stranded since December on the Panamanian frontier with Costa Rica to near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Cubans entering the United States receive residency with relative ease under the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act of 1996.

Just inside the border with Panama, Puerto Obaldia has been one of the main crossing points from Colombia for thousands of Cubans and other migrants who have traveled to the United States via Central America in the past two years.

Many of the Cubans entering last year began their trek in Ecuador, which offered them an easy way into South America. In December Ecuador imposed visa requirements on the Cubans.

The number of Cubans heading north surged last year in part due to their fears that recent rapprochement between Havana and Washington could end those preferential U.S. policies.

Reporting by Elida Moreno; Editing by Enrique Pretel and David Gregorio