AILSA CHANG, HOST:
For migrants traveling north to the U.S.-Mexico border from countries like Chile and Brazil, the trip has become virtually impossible without two things - a smuggler and social media. And that's where we begin this hour - with freelance reporter Luis Chaparro, who just returned from assignment on the border between Colombia and Panama.
LUIS CHAPARRO: One of the craziest things was that the migrants basically board these Colombian government-sponsored boats, which are, like, huge ferries.
CHANG: The migrants are on these boats because usually that's the only choice. You see; at the northern edge of Colombia, the road for tens of thousands of migrants headed to the U.S.-Mexico border - that road - it literally stops. It hits a thick jungle called the Darien Gap that was once considered impenetrable. And to get around a section of the Darien Gap, migrants pack into boats and are taken out to sea.
CHAPARRO: And right in the middle of the sea, these small boats, like, fishing boats controlled by people from Clan del Golfo - you can totally tell they are smugglers. So they start taking the migrants out from the official ferry and into these fishing boats. We're talking about maybe 40 to 50 people, which is extremely dangerous to do in one of these fishing boats.
CHANG: From there, Chaparro says, migrants are in the hands of the Clan Del Golfo, an organized crime group in Colombia that controls human smuggling in the area. Chaparro says to get through the rest of the dense jungle of the Darien Gap, the clan charges for everything.
CHAPARRO: They charge for the water. If they get tired and they need to carry one of their backpacks. they charge for that. They charge for tents. They charge for a pair of boots to go through the Darien. They even charge for these little plastic bags to secure their passports or their important documents.
CHANG: And Chaparro says in one camp he visited, the Clan del Golfo had rigged up a hot spot and charged $50 an hour for Wi-Fi, which is a ton of money, obviously, for most of these migrants. But that Wi-Fi, that smartphone - it's essential. It's like a lifeline for these migrants. Their phones are how they ask their families to send them money. They're how migrants navigate the journey. And they make sure that they always have enough money to buy new phones in case they lose their current phones.
CHAPARRO: Otherwise, they're going to be stuck in the middle of ugly places like the Darien Gap. As soon as they go out, they getting in touch with the next smuggler up on the route and they say, like, OK, we're going to get - we're going to hit Guatemala in the next five days. Can you host me through Guatemala into Mexico?
CHANG: In fact, the cellphone is also how migrants find these smugglers, mostly via Facebook and WhatsApp.
CHAPARRO: In Facebook, they mostly use groups, finding information about the route, about if someone died or sharing U.S. news, like if Biden said something about the border, about if it's open or if it's closed or if they're taking in families.
CHANG: And Chaparro says he even saw migrants recording pieces of their journey and posting them on YouTube.
CHAPARRO: So they're recording most of their path through all of the country they're going through. That's how other people start watching their trek and decide, like, all right, so this was his trek. It was kind of hard, but it was doable. And I saw him on YouTube, so I'll go.
CHANG: And for long stretches on the way north, these kinds of videos and messages on WhatsApp - they essentially play the role of the smuggler. Migrants often travel on their own, and smugglers will send them occasional text messages via WhatsApp to guide them remotely. Well, we're going to hear more now about how these smuggling groups use social media. And to do that, we're joined now by Nilda Garcia, who's an assistant professor at Texas A&M University. Welcome.
NILDA GARCIA: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
CHANG: So, Nilda, we just heard Chaparro say that migrants find smugglers via Facebook. But can you just explain exactly how do they find these smugglers? Like, say I'm in Chile, and I want to head to the U.S. Where do I even begin to look for a smuggler to help me make that journey?
GARCIA: I started doing my research, and I have the same question. How do I start looking for groups if I was an immigrant? So I just went to Facebook. I started looking at groups, and it was very straightforward. If you look at groups and you describe (speaking Spanish), I want to cross the border - or you can type, trips to the United States, (speaking Spanish). Some of these groups have titles that are very straightforward. You're going to find them, right? And it is an entire business that they actually have within these groups in Facebook.
CHANG: And I'm just curious. Are there literally, like, reviews posted of these groups, people offering feedback on their own experiences working with these various smugglers?
GARCIA: Yes. They have different dynamics. One of them is actually someone that wants to migrate into the United States, or they want to cross the border. They're going to ask for someone, or they're going to ask for references. So a lot of people that have crossed - maybe they're going to actually say, oh, this is a guide, or, this was my guide, or, this is how I do it, or, this is how my family's doing it. And also, you cannot find people advertising their services. You're going to find people actually luring clients, right? And they're going to be advertising packages, for example, in where you can either start with the lowest one or the lowest price until a very higher price or even VIP packages.
CHANG: Oh, so there's a variation of packages. So, like, the more expensive packages mean more comfortable journeys. How do the packages differ?
GARCIA: Exactly. It depends also in the commodities they're going to have during this trip, right? Some of them is you have to walk maybe five days, and there's ones you'll have to walk through the desert. If you are from Central America, South America, the prices are going to go up. And the services that they provide are also different because they can either fly you in a private plane into Mexico and then smuggle you into the United States. And the further you want to go in the United States, the higher the price is going to be as well.
CHANG: Right. I mean, is it even a feasible option for people to make this journey on their own, or does having the assistance of a smuggler group change the journey dramatically for these people?
GARCIA: Yeah. Actually, if you look into the history of smuggling, during the '70s, it was very, like, family-based. It's small groups of people that actually were - they made a business out of this. And a lot of people did the journey by themselves. Now because of these policies of reinforcing the border, it's very, very hard for people to actually be able to cross by themselves.
CHANG: Well, you know, we heard from a Border Patrol agent a few months ago who said a lot of smugglers - they guide people via WhatsApp. They don't physically accompany them. And the agents said that was actually leading to more rescues along the U.S.-Mexico border because people were ending up in these really dangerous locations. I wonder, how are you seeing the use of social media by migrants and smuggling groups - how are you seeing that use change migration?
GARCIA: This is a good question. And actually, I'm writing a paper, actually, to try to find out this - like, how the dynamics have changed, if this is something that is actually increasing migration in this border. So that's a very good question. But what I see is that it has facilitated the contact of people, and I think Facebook gives them an opportunity and a bigger platform in order for them to reach more immigrants. And for immigrants, it's easier for them to connect with people that are actually offering their services.
CHANG: Right. Nilda Garcia is an assistant professor at Texas A&M University. Thank you so much for joining us today.
GARCIA: Thank you so much.
CHANG: And just one note - Facebook is one of NPR's financial supporters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.