Migrants cross the Turquesa river in the Darien jungle, Panama, 14 September 2023 (issued 22 September 2023). EFE/ Bienvenido Velasco

Social media, a mirage that encourages thousands of migrants through the Darién jungle

Moncho Torres

Bajo Chiquito, Panama, Sept 22 (EFE).- Horrible, just horrible, repeat many migrants after crossing the dangerous Darién jungle, the natural border between Panama and Colombia. Many embark on the nightmarish journey, guided by videos that flood social media and the stories of acquaintances.

Misinformation and deception accompany the migration crisis, with thousands of travelers crossing Central America to reach the United States.

“Strength, strength!” shouts a man as he leads a group of migrants through the current of a river. They cross in a human chain. Two girls cry and scream as they are dragged by the current while someone holds their wrists and pulls them to shore.

It’s not their first crossing, as the rivers mark the way to avoid getting lost in the jungle, and the meandering water makes wading inevitable.

“There is a woman who has been there for ten days,” says a young man who has just crossed the river in the Come Gallina area at the jungle exit.

Migrants cross the Turquesa river in the Darien jungle, Panama, 14 September 2023 (issued 22 September 2023). EFE/ Bienvenido Velasco

They stay because of exhaustion, dehydration, or injuries. Many are also attacked by wild animals or criminals who rob and assault them.

Venezuelan Delia Gómez, 51, is now safe in what migrants call “the UN,” the Lajas Blancas migrant reception center set up by the Panamanian authorities to provide them shelter, medical care, and food.

She sits under a tent with a bandaged knee, sweating and looking lost.

“It’s terrible. I don’t recommend it to anyone. I was left alone. My companions left me without food, without anything. I don’t remember how long I was in the jungle. I lost track of time. I saw many dead people”. Delia told EFE.

The first town they reach in Panama is Bajo Chiquito, on the banks of the Tuquesa River. It is an indigenous settlement of a few dozen wooden houses now overflowing with migrants who queue for hours to register with the authorities.

The small registry continues to break records: according to official data, more than 385,000 people crossed this jungle in 2023, a significant increase from 248,000 in all of 2022.

Estimates are that the number will reach 500,000 in 2023.

In August alone, there were almost 82,000 arrivals, an unusual figure compared to the 31,000 in the same month last year, an average of nearly 3,000 people a day, 20% of whom are children.

A migrant carries his baby as he crosses the Turquesa river in the Darien jungle, Panama, 14 September 2023 (issued 22 September 2023). Horrible, horrible, many migrants repeat. EFE/ Bienvenido Velasco

Venezuelan Noelia Rojas holds her daughter in arms at a Bajo Chiquito campground.

The girl turns and smiles at the camera. Then, her mother begins to recount their journey through the jungle.

“Terrible,” she says, and as her mother recalls the dead, the little girl’s expression turns to sadness.

“If I had known that this path was like this, I would not have risked my daughter,” she admits to EFE.

“I came with confidence (…) because I had no idea it would be like this,” she adds.

It was reported “on social media, but what they show is not even a quarter of what you experience in real life.”

The girl leans close to her mother’s ear and tells her a secret: she saw a “dead child.” She is traumatized,” the mother says.

Follow TikTok

Migrants cross the Turquesa river in the Darien jungle, Panama, 14 September 2023 (issued 22 September 2023). EFE/ Bienvenido Velasco

Just type “Darién” into TikTok, and you’ll find dozens of stories from migrants about their adventures in the jungle.

Some are sugar-coated with laughter as if it were a Sunday walk. Others are harsher, describing muddy trails, dead people, or people abandoned on the road.

To avoid these dangers, some advertise “VIP” trips with an “experienced” and “safe” guide. They say the guide was “very nice” and that “if your dream is to travel to the United States, you can do it this year.”

Olivier Tenes, a specialist in border management and migration at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), explained to EFE that “the groups involved in smuggling migrants are adept at using social networks.”

“Migrants, desperate about their economic or family situation and frustrated by the difficulties in accessing regular migration options, easily give in to the false promises of smooth and safe journeys made by traffickers,” Tenes details,

Migrants line up to be registered by immigration agents after crossing the Darién jungle, in Bajo Chiquito, Panama, 13 September 2023 (issued 22 September 2023). EFE/ Bienvenido Velasco

However, he also recalls that in 2022, 1,457 migrants were counted dead or missing on routes throughout the continent.

According to Camilo Ramírez, director of the humanitarian organization HIAS in Colombia, migrants prefer receiving information through TikTok or other social networks because of the closeness they feel with the person narrating their migratory experience.

According to Ramirez, people prefer to rely on other migrants’ accounts of the journey despite the lack of reliability of the testimonies.

It is perceived differently when “a Venezuelan who has done the route tells another Venezuelan who wants to do it, by word of mouth, that they have done it and that it is not so difficult,” he says.

It’s not real

A migrant rests with her baby in a shelter after crossing the Darien jungle, in Lajas Blancas, Panama, 15 September 2023 (issued 22 September 2023). EFE/ Bienvenido Velasco

EFE spoke with Mariángela Torcate, a Venezuelan woman who crossed the Darién and admitted TikTok videos seduced her because she was desperate to leave Venezuela.

Recalling her experience, she says: “To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t recommend it even to my worst enemy. Honestly, this is not a way to migrate. What happens is that you make the decision out of desperation, out of the need to be there (in the US)”.

She also recognizes that the reality of the route does not resemble what is portrayed on social media.

“We always saw it on TikTok, in things like that, but it was easy and soft, not what you see in reality. It’s terrifying,” says Mariángela.

“I almost fell into a ravine. To avoid going over a rock, I can’t swim, and a man gave me his hand, and I told him not to let me die,” she added. EFE