Manuel Monterrosa left for the United States last year with his cell phone and a plan: record his journey through the dangerous jungle of the Darién Strait and post it on YouTube, warning other migrants about the dangers they would face.
In his six-episode series, edited on his cell phone along the way, he heads north with a backpack, taking viewers step by step as he passes through rivers, muddy forests and a mountain known as Death Hill.
He eventually arrived in the USA. But to his surprise, videos of him started attracting so many views and making enough money that he decided he didn’t need to live there anymore.
So Monterrosa, 35, a Venezuelan, has returned to South America and now has a new plan: travel the Darién route again, this time in search of content and clicks, having learned how to make a living as a perpetual migrant. “Migration sells,” said Monterrosa. “My audience is an audience that wants a dream.”
For more than a decade, cell phones have been indispensable tools for people fleeing their homelands, helping them research routes, find friends and loved ones, connect with smugglers and avoid authorities.
Now, cell phones and social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and TikTok are drastically changing the equation once again, fueling the next evolution of the global movement.
Migrants are the producers of a massive digital almanac of the journey to the US, documenting the route and its pitfalls in such detail that, in some sections, people can find their way on their own, without smugglers. And as they broadcast their struggles and successes to millions of people in their home countries, some are becoming small-time celebrities and influencers, inspiring others to make the journey too.
His posts, photos, videos and memes are not only in Spanish, but also in the many languages spoken by migrants from around the world who are increasingly arriving at the U.S. southern border.
In Mandarin, the route from South America to the US is called “zouxian” or “trek”. In Hindi, Haryanvi and Punjabi, languages spoken in India, it is part of “dunki”, a reference to an informal route. In Haitian Creole, Darién jungle is “raje” or “ditch”. In Pashto and Persian, languages spoken in Afghanistan, “game”.
Ankush Malik documented his journey from India to the US last year, kissing his grandmother goodbye at the start of his YouTube series. His channel has been viewed almost 7 million times. “This looks like so much fun. I want to do this too,” says one follower. “Eagerly awaiting the next part of this video,” writes another, “love and blessings from Gujarat.”
Some influencers, like Monterrosa, who studied communications in Venezuela, are earning a few hundred dollars a month from companies like YouTube — much more than they earned at home. During one good month, Monterrosa says he earned US$1,000 (R$4,880) in payments, four times the minimum wage in Colombia, where he now lives.
But the content could be more profitable for social media companies, which make money from posts about migration the same way they do from cat videos. The longer viewers watch, the more ads they can be shown.
Posts in Spanish with the #migracion tag on TikTok have nearly 2 billion views, according to data from the Conscious Advertising Network, a coalition of advertisers and technology providers. The same happens with posts tagged with #darien.
On Facebook, migration-related groups are flourishing — one has more than 500,000 members — creating an open market for smugglers who call themselves “consultants” or “guides.”
The company claims that offering smuggling services violates its policies and that it makes a huge effort to identify and remove this type of content, including working with the UN. Still, the New York Times found more than 900 cases of Facebook users offering passage to the US.
“Accompanying you towards your dreams!” says a recent Facebook post, where a group calls itself a “travel agency” and advertises several routes through Darién.
Facebook removed this and hundreds of other posts flagged by the Times. A company representative called “the safety of our users” a priority, acknowledging that it was a challenge to keep up with the “mind-boggling amount” of information.
“We have every incentive to remove violative content from the platform,” said Erin McPike, a spokeswoman, adding that some of the posts did not violate the company’s rules. At the center of this digital conversation is the Darién Strait, the dangerous jungle that spans North and South America and has gone from dense, rarely traveled forest to migratory route.
The Darién is the only way to enter the Northern Hemisphere on foot. Once traveled by just a few thousand people a year, it has become a frightening rite of passage, crossed by more than 500,000 migrants — from more than a hundred countries — this year, according to authorities in Panama, where the jungle ends.
The political turmoil and economic chaos of the pandemic are fueling the surge, but officials from Colombia to the U.S. say cellphones and social media are undoubtedly accelerants.
“I saw their stories on Facebook,” said Irismar Gutiérrez, 22, a Venezuelan about to venture to the Darién, referring to all the posts from friends and family who made it to the US.
The Darién, previously little known around the world, has attracted so much attention that it may soon become a television program, with a team of 24 adventurers planning a jeep expedition through the jungle. The producers say they hope to reach “up to 40 million views per month on TikTok alone.”
To the alarm of the Biden administration, the number of Venezuelans crossing the Darién jumped last year as photographs and videos spread across TikTok, Instagram and Facebook showing Venezuelans making it to the US.
Since then, Darién’s social media universe has exploded. On TikTok, a joyful, almost emotional video from Darién, with migrants waving and jumping into an emerald-colored river, has nearly 13 million views. A Facebook user with nearly 500,000 followers named El Chamo (the young guy) posted videos of Darién and then a follow-up called “My first job in the US.”
Many content creators say they serve as citizen journalists and educators, helping others understand what the route entails and make informed decisions about whether to take the risk or not.
Monterrosa, the YouTuber, said his family fled to Venezuela in the 1980s to escape violence in Colombia. He then returned to Colombia in 2017 to escape the turmoil in Venezuela. He said he tried to make a living in Colombia before heading north, selling chocolates and lighters on public buses and sleeping on the floor of a shared apartment.
He and his family have fled violence and poverty so many times that migration is part of his identity, something he “carries with me.”
In the miniseries about his journey to the US, he passes the body of a man who appears to be on the verge of death and considers the terrifying question, faced by almost every migrant on the route, of stopping and helping a person who can no longer continue.
“Is it inhumane not to help?” he asks.
He was told by others that he inspired them to head north, including Miguel Alejandro Rojas, 27, who used Monterrosa’s work as a model for his own Darién miniseries. But Monterrosa does not see itself encouraging large-scale migration.
He says much larger factors are to blame for this — such as crises in migrants’ home countries, demand for cheap labor in the U.S., immigration policies that force people into illegal routes, and social media platforms that benefit from the constant flow of new content.
Migrants who narrate and share their own journeys “are just a few more survivors” in a world that offers few other options, he said.
Facebook and TikTok are also flooded with the faces of people who have disappeared or died in Darién, accompanied by desperate pleas from family members asking for any information about their loved ones. “It’s been 34 days without any news from them,” says a Facebook post, above photographs of two boys from Ecuador. Another, featuring an image of a child in a diaper, includes a plea for the child’s name and relatives because his mother “drowned in a swamp.”