Migrants take to social media to document their risky journey to the US

The Darien jungle, between North and South America, has become one of the main routes for migrants heading to the United States, with more than 520,000 people crossing just last year. Many are now documenting their migration journeys with their phones and posting videos on social media platforms. From Bogota, Manuel Rueda reports.

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Eduardo Ojeda crossed the US border with his family in December after a five-week journey from Venezuela to a tall border gate in El Paso.

Ojeda, his partner, their two teenagers, and their 2-year-old son made a dangerous trek across the Darien jungle. 

They took boat rides between remote villages, passed eight border crossings and spent numerous nights sleeping in rainy campsites and crowded shelters. 

Eduardo Ojeda poses for a photo after reaching the border between Colombia and Panama in November. Courtesy of Eduardo Ojeda

Ojeda, 34, captured some of it with his cellphone, posting minute-long videos on TikTok. 

Migrants increasingly use sites like Facebook, TikTok and Instagram to record their journeys across dangerous routes. Some have managed to monetize their content, while others say they just want to help those who’ll come behind.

Ojeda said he wanted to show his viewers how tough the journey north can be while providing some advice to thousands of migrants who are now on their way to the United States.

“I saw many people who were getting ripped off by smugglers and losing all their money early in the trip,” Ojeda said in a phone interview from a shelter in New York. 

“So, I wanted to show people that along most of the road, you do not need to buy services from smugglers, and you can do this journey independently,” he added.

More than 500,000 migrants and refugees traveled from South America to the United States last year. 

A group of migrants leaves the Colombian village of Capurgana and enters the Darien jungle on April 30, 2023.Manuel Rueda/The World

Venezuelans, Ecuadorians, Haitians and Chinese citizens are leading the long list of nationalities that go through this route.

Ojeda’s videos have an educational feel to them. The Venezuelan migrant points out the locations of shelters in different towns and shows his viewers where to get money transfers

Ojeda also informs on transportation costs along different segments of the route.

In the comments below Ojeda’s TikTok videos, people about to make the journey interact with those who have recently made it to the US.

Followers usually ask about prices or the safest places to cross the US border.

“It wasn’t easy to get here,” said Ojeda, who now works at a parking lot in New York City. 

“But it’s not impossible,” he added.

Migrants camp outside the Panamanian village of Bajo Chiquito on September 16, after crossing the Darien jungle.Manuel Rueda/The World

Ojeda did not make any money from his videos. Others have managed to monetize the difficult and often dangerous journey to the US.

Manuel Monterrosa filmed himself crossing the Darien jungle between Colombia and Panama two years ago when he made the journey to the United States.

Now, he has more than 90,000 followers on YouTube.

Last year, Monterrosa returned to South America to make more videos about the immigration routes. He gave up on living in the United States to pursue content creation.

“This is not about promoting illegal immigration,” Monterrosa said in a video call from El Salvador, where he’s working on new content. “I just wanted to show people the reality of these places so that they can make good choices.”

Social media accounts can also mislead migrants.

In Colombia’s Darien region, smugglers are using Facebook groups to sell travel packages that cost hundreds of dollars.

On April 30, 2023, a group of migrants left the Colombian village of Capurgana and entered the Darien jungle. Last year, more than half a million migrants took this route as they traveled from South America to the United States.Manuel Rueda/The World

The smugglers post interviews with people who claim they have made the route and make it sound like it’s an easy trip, said Bram Ebus, a researcher at the International Crisis Group.

“Often, the route through the Darien is promoted as this jungle adventure next to beautiful Caribbean beaches, a once-in-a-lifetime experience where you will make new friends,” Ebus said. 

“But that is far from reality.”  

Ebus said that social media companies like Facebook should do a better job at blocking accounts that are misleading migrants.

Grave human rights abuses occur in the Darien, while smugglers downplay the risks of the journey to get as many customers as they can. 

These often include robberies and sexual assault.

In February, Doctors Without Borders reported that in the first two months of this year, it had treated more than 220 victims of sexual assault at its health posts on the northern edge of the Darien Gap. 

Migrants line up to take buses towards Costa Rica, at the Lajas Blancas camp in Panama, on September 13. Manuel Rueda/The World

The medical group said it was “outraged with the level of impunity” that criminal groups in the region get away with.

Ojeda said that he only published his TikTok series after arriving in the United States. He didn’t want to upset human traffickers who profit from taking people across borders.

“I didn’t want to put my family at risk because the smugglers are also connected to cartels,” he said.

Ojeda said he hopes that refugees and migrants who are heading to the US will find reliable information on their journey. 

He said many of them have been left with few other choices.

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