At least 39 people, most of them undocumented US-bound migrants who had just survived a perilous jungle crossing, have died in a bus crash in Panama, officials said.
Maria Isabel Saravia, Panama’s deputy director of migration, said 28 people were also injured in the accident on Wednesday.
The bus plunged down a ravine and hit a minibus about 400 kilometres west of the capital Panama City, the National Migration Service said in a media statement.
Saravia said 66 people including 20 minors were on the bus, meaning at least one victim was likely from the vehicle it hit.
UNICEF said in a note to AFP that at least three children were among the dead.
The bus was transporting migrants who had crossed the Darien Gap, an inhospitable jungle area bordering Colombia, moving westward toward Costa Rica and from there aimed to continue their journey through Central America and Mexico to the United States.
The nationalities of the occupants have not been revealed but Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez said on Twitter that Cubans were among the dead.
Thousands of migrants arriving via Colombia risk their lives every year beating a path through the thick, swampy Darien Gap, a roadless jungle area replete with wild animals, dangerous rivers and criminal gangs.
Despite the dangers, the number of irregular migrants arriving in Panama en route to the United States nearly doubled in 2022 to a record 248,000, immigration authorities reported on January 1.
According to Jose Vicente Pachar, director general of the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences of Panama, at least 60 migrants died crossing the Darien Gap last year, up from 50 in 2021.
The government of Panama, in collaboration with United Nations agencies and aid organizations, has set up camps to provide humanitarian assistance to migrant arrivals.
Panamanian authorities help transfer hundreds of migrants every day in private buses from the border with Colombia to Paso Canoas on the border with Costa Rica.