Panama City (AFP) - Panama on Monday slammed shut its border crossing with Colombia to Cuban migrants, becoming the third Central American country to halt access to an unrelenting exodus of Cubans trying to reach the United States.
Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela's announcement that Cubans without visas will no longer be permitted entry comes as nearly 4,000 other Cuban migrants began departing Panama on daily flights to northern Mexico.
Those Cubans had become stranded in Panama following moves late last year by Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the next two countries north of Panama, to bar entry to Cubans.
Thousands of Cubans are leaving their island, typically by flying to Ecuador or other countries in South America to make a long overland trek through Central America and Mexico to get to the United States.
Under a US law dating back to the Cold War, Cubans who reach US soil are given privileged entry and a fast track to residency.
For the past two decades, the US Coast Guard has sent back to Cuba any migrants intercepted at sea trying to cross the narrow Florida Strait. That made the overland route a more promising way to get into the United States.
Nicaragua -- a close ally of Havana -- closed its border to Cubans in November. Costa Rica followed suit a month later to prevent a backlog on its own territory, leaving the thousands of Cubans to pile up in Panama with no easy route north.
"Given the decision of other countries in Central America, specifically Nicaragua and Costa Rica, we have taken the difficult decision to close the border with Colombia in the area of Puerto Obaldia and other border points to irregular migrants," Varela said.
Puerto Obaldia, a Caribbean seaside border port serves as the only real point of entry from Colombia, relying on boat transport to get across.
The rest of the Panamanian-Colombian border is thick jungle rising from swamps, with no roads. Foot passage is possible, but extremely difficult and hazardous.