Social media like Facebook and Skype are changing, and in some cases
accelerating, the decades-old northward migration of Central
Americans, U.S. and Honduran officials said, by providing
crowd-sourced information on the risks and rewards of making the
Images and testimonials posted by migrants who have made it to the
United States help keep uprooted families closer together and drive
business for e-commerce "coyotes" like Villeda, who is based in the
city of La Ceiba on Honduras' Caribbean coast.
"I don't need to advertise because Facebook is what convinces them
to go," said Villeda, who dips into Internet cafes whenever he can
to check his inbox.
"There's lots of people who haven't seen their families for a long
time. When they arrive, they write about it on Facebook," he said,
referring to posts by migrants about making it across the border.
For U.S. and Central American officials struggling to stop a wave of
migrants, including tens of thousands of unaccompanied children,
from heading to the United States, social networks are proving a
While many migrants are fleeing violence and poverty, U.S. officials
say wooly rumors spread on social networks of a U.S. amnesty for
arriving mothers and children, coupled with a misunderstanding of
U.S. immigration reform, are also pushing people northward.
Coyotes have taken advantage of the confusion, and officials in
Honduras speak of smugglers advertising on rural radio stations. But
for some coyotes, Facebook plays a key role in their operations.
There is no data on how social media is used for planning the
arduous treks to the United States, but anecdotal evidence from
smugglers, migrants and police suggests many use sites like Facebook
to share tips, meet fellow travelers and communicate with customers
and fellow coyotes.
Ramon Sabillon, the head of Honduras' national police, told Reuters
that police monitored social networks.
"The objective is to look for the coyotes, the "polleros," not to
look for the people migrating," he said. "The social networks are
just one more tool for us."
BUTCHER TURNED SMUGGLER
"Pollo", or Chicken, a Guatemalan smuggler who is also a butcher,
uses Facebook on his smartphone to monitor where his customers are
on the route between Guatemala and San Diego, California.
Few migrants travel with smartphones, and there are only 4.2 million
users in Central America out of about 40 million people, according
to consultancy International Data Corporation. As such, Pollo urges
customers to drop into internet cafes along the route to let their
families know they are alright.
"It's indispensable to maintain communication," he said, adding that
he uses a GPS phone app, which enables him to monitor the location
of his helpers via their mobile phones as they move his customers
To be sure, internet penetration is low in Central America, with an
average of nearly 20 percent of the population linked up in
Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, according to one estimate. But
those who use the Internet to plan trips north, provide valuable
feedback for would-be migrants on coyotes.
"Social media now enables families and young people to learn from
those in the U.S. that 'this coyote delivers ... I went, and I'm up
here. The guy around the corner, he's the one who got me here,'"
said a U.S. official in Washington, asking not to be named to be
able to speak freely.
In short, the grapevine has moved online.
"Can someone recommend a safe and trustworthy (smuggler), I'm
traveling with kids," wrote one user on Yahoo Answers. "I want to be
a coyote or "pollero" to earn some good money," wrote another,
referring to another slang term for a smuggler.
At the Honduran border crossing of Corinto, where money-changers
wave large wads of Guatemalan quetzales at deportees getting off
yellow U.S. school buses, bored-looking police officers inspect the
papers of those heading into Guatemala.
For Inspector Herlan Vindel, social media are a recurring theme. He
said his men recently intercepted two Ecuadorian women crossing the
border with a Guatemalan coyote. The women told police they had met
each other, and their coyote, online.
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"The whole negotiation was done over Facebook," Vindel said.
A few hundred meters away, 26-year-old Jose Martinez was waiting for
the police to end their afternoon shift before taking advantage of a
surveillance lull during the handover to slip across into Guatemala.
He had not seen his mother since she left Honduras 12 years ago.
He recently tried to migrate north with his wife and 2-year-old son
Anthony but was caught at the U.S. border and deported. His wife and
son made it through and are now with his mother in Los Angeles.
The photos they put on Facebook - of his son playing in the park, or
on Sunday trips to a simple restaurant - have inspired him to head
north once again.
"Skype also helps a lot to see family over there - they can see if
you've got pretty or ugly," he said, laughing, before setting off on
the 2,200-km (1,370-mile) journey.
Logging on to his Facebook account from a migrant shelter in
southern Mexico, 23-year-old Jorge Moncada has posted photos on
Facebook showing him hanging from one of the migrant-moving trains
known as "La Bestia" and posing with a young boy who lost his foot
riding the dangerous train.
In an effort to get to the United states earlier this summer,
Moncada was kidnapped for 11 days by the Gulf Cartel in the northern
Mexican border state of Tamaulipas with more than 100 people, before
Mexican authorities freed them.
Moncada, who left Honduras in May in part to escape homophobia
because he is gay, uses Facebook to let his family know his
whereabouts and how he's doing.
"It's not easy needing to emigrate and place our lives at risk of
whatever terrible thing can happen on the journey, just to perhaps
find a better lives for our families," he wrote in a Facebook post
last week, beneath a new cover photo of himself dressed in an off
the shoulder dress and long-haired wig.
Social media can add incentive to attempt a dangerous journey that
can subject desperate migrants to kidnapping, theft, rape and even
death along the way.
In a YouTube video that purports to show a coyote telling a woman
where to cross a river into the United States from Mexico, a
conversation breaks out in the comments section, with people sharing
email addresses in the hope of traveling north together.
Documenting the migration on social networks can also be risky.
Jose and his wife Mayra moved to the United States from Guatemala 14
years ago, leaving their daughter with relatives. Three years ago
they paid $8,500 to bring her to the United States after her cousin
was kidnapped and ransomed for $30,000 (17,785 pounds).
Jose, a 40-year-old construction worker in Fredericksburg, Virginia,
who declined to give his family name as he is still undocumented,
said he would never use Facebook to keep in touch with his mother in
Guatemala nor upload photos of his U.S. life.
"If people see she has a son who lives in America, they might think,
'He's got dollars,'" he said. "They might come after her."
(Additional reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Joanna
Zuckerman Bernstein. Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by
Simon Gardner and Ross Colvin)
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