Roger Garcia Ovalles he told his parents he wouldn’t call for a month.
He planned to sell his phone before embarking on the overland journey from Peru to the United States, to prevent the device from becoming loot for criminals who might cross his path.
To reassure his parents, Roger clarified that he would take other precautions: he would travel with five people and avoid crossing the Darien Gap, the intricate tropical forest that occupies eastern Panama and imposes a natural barrier between Central and South America, without public services or delimited roads to navigate.
Videos on social networks showed the bodies of migrants dragged by the rivers of that jungle. The women spoke of abuse, the men narrated assaults by armed groups.
Some 250,000 people crossed the Darién in 2022 en route to the United States, double the number the previous year, the Panamanian government reported. Six out of ten were Venezuelans, like Roger.
Edgar García Bolívar, Roger’s father, had seen the same stories on Facebook. He recounts that he asked his son how he intended to cross Central America by land without going through the Darién.
«In a boat that leaves from the island of San Andrés and reaches Nicaragua»Edgar recalls that he defended Roger, who emigrated from Venezuela to Peru 5 years earlier and worked at the reception of a hotel in Machu Picchu, the Inca citadel that attracts millions of tourists each year to the tops of the Peruvian Andes.
Roger got that job because he spoke English, a skill he supposed would help him try his luck in the United States.
He learned the language as a teenager, during the two years that he and his family were in Virginia, in the southeastern United States, at the time when the Venezuelan Air Force appointed his father to the Inter-American Defense Board, the military arm of the Organization of American States.
Edgar is now 70 years old and a retired colonel in the Venezuelan Air Force. He was a pilot in emergency rescue operations. He was working to assess risks, and the one that awaited his son on that journey seemed very high.
«Who are you going with? Who’s your coyote?» Edgar says he asked his son, who used to be reserved with his planes. He had heard of «unscrupulous people» charging to guide migrants, then leaving them stranded.
Roger didn’t answer. Nor was it specified who were his travel companions. He only said that they had already made contacts in Colombia and everything was ready for the crossing. Two of his friends were also Venezuelans.
Edgar invited him to rethink the strategy, although he was aware that Roger was solely responsible for his decisions. He was already a 38-year-old man.
Once they hung up, Edgar looked at the screen of his mobile phone to remember the date of that conversation with his son: Monday, August 15, 2022.
On Friday the 9th of, shortly before the month of contact with Roger last September, his father sent him an email: «Hello, we have not heard from you for 20 days, please write to know that you are well. DTB (God bless) and the Virgin protects you».
Four days later, he wrote to him again: «Don’t forget to communicate by this means in any cyber for our peace of mind.»
When six weeks passed without hearing from Roger, two more than the period that he himself had stipulated to communicate, his parents and brothers agreed to share an announcement on their social media accounts with a passport-type photo and the image of the first page of your passport.
«Help us find him,» the ad read. «It is presumed that he is in transit from Colombia to Mexico. If you see him please contact his family.»
Below is the phone number of the family home in Maracay, a city located more than 100 kilometers from Caracas, in northern Venezuela. Also Edgar’s mobile phone and email, who assumed the management of contact with the authorities and with anyone who offered information through social networks.
Given that it was impossible to make international calls from Maracay due to the weak connectivity of the operators, Edgar says that he filled out digital forms on the pages of the foreign ministries of Venezuela, Peru, Panama and Mexico to request that they issue search alerts with the data of roger
He assures that no chancellery responded or issued alerts.
He says that he went to the Red Cross in Venezuela, where they interviewed him and disseminated an advertisement among the stations that serve migrants in Central America.
He sent emails to UNHCR offices in Lima, Panama City and Mexico City, but received no response. «We regret that we cannot assist him in getting the information he needs,» he replied from the UNHCR office in Guatemala.
Luiz Fernando Godinho, spokesman for UNHCR’s Office for the Americas, told BBC Mundo that in the face of a request like Edgar’s, «UNHCR’s preferred option would be to refer the family to partners such as the International Committee of the Red Cross or the local Red Cross Society, who specialize in restoring family ties.»
Godinho omitted that UNHCR has «a global data sharing agreement» with the Red Cross, which allows «formalizing personal data exchanges, even with the aim of restoring family ties.»
Edgar also contacted the Peace Brigades International, the Águilas del Desierto and the Chaplains of the Desert, migrant search and rescue groups that operate on the US-Mexico border.
From Chaplains del Desierto they asked him if he had gone to the Mexican immigration authorities. «No, because (Roger) is supposed to be an illegal immigrant who is on his way to the USA,» he replied on Facebook.
A spokesperson for the organization responded that if Roger had a Venezuelan passport, he could apply for a humanitarian permit, although it required money to pay for the process.
However, note that the situation was different if Roger was traveling on «La Bestia», the train that crosses Mexico from south to north to transport merchandise, and which hundreds of migrants board irregularly daily to travel faster to the United States.
In any case, He said that if Roger had been detained by the Mexican authorities, there should be some record of him «either in the forensics or in hospitals.»
One person contacted Edgar on Facebook and said many Venezuelans flocked to the Hermanos en el Camino migrant shelter in the city of Ixtepec in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
Edgar went to the National Commission for the Search for Missing Persons of Oaxaca, which issued a bulletin on November 24, 2022 about Roger, who disappeared «en route migratory», and which was also published by the state of Coahuila, bordering the United States.
Another person on Facebook said they «believed» that Roger was in Guatemala. «According to what I heard, they robbed him and that is why he is incommunicado,» the message said. «He is on the sixth avenue of zone 1 asking for help to continue.»
A relative of the García Ovalles who lived in Guatemala City toured the avenue and chatted with some of the Venezuelans who were there. Nobody knew Roger.
The International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project estimates that there are at least 7,515 migrants who have gone missing in the Americas since 2014, most of them on the US-Mexico border.
«They’re going to kill me»
One afternoon, Edgar received a Whatsapp message from a person who claimed to have Roger. When they chatted, the man with the Mexican accent was friendly until Edgar requested a video call to see his son or ask security questions to which only Roger knew the answers.
Edgar remembers that after chatting for five days, the man gave him an ultimatum: «He told me that if I didn’t respond with money, that I would face the consequences because they were going to sacrifice him.»
As Roger’s mother listened to the negotiations, she felt a tightness in her chest and difficulty breathing. «My wife suffers from tension. With these calls she raises her to 200 and we have had to take her to the hospital.»
The man sent a photo. Roger appeared dressed in black, holding a sign that read: «They’re going to kill me.»
In the midst of hopelessness, Edgar took a deep breath and strained. In the Air Force they had affected him for moments like that. Even if his child was at risk, he couldn’t lose his cool.
Then he realized that there was something strange in the photo.
His son’s features were no longer like the ones shown in the image. That Roger was at most 25 years old, not the 38 with which he left Machu Picchu. Yet it seemed so real that Edgar didn’t want to risk cutting off his call.
Before overwhelming his wife with hypotheses he couldn’t prove, he consulted his suspicion with a nephew who worked in social networks. They concluded that a montage made of a photo of his son that Edgar had posted on his Facebook profile during the search was stolen.
«That’s a montage, I don’t believe in that photo,» he says he told the man. «I want a video call or security questions,» he added. The man «became violent» and Edgar blocked him.
From that moment on, he has applied the same strategy with the following 14 «scammers»as he calls them, who have tried to get money from him with false information about Roger after that first attempt.
«I’m already alert. Every time an extortionist calls, I ask uncomfortable questions and I find out,» he says in a phone call from Maracay. Every day he consults the networks to see if someone contacts him with information about his son.
During the seven months and one week that Roger has been missing, silence settled in his parents’ house in Maracay. They did not celebrate Christmas or New Year. They prefer not to talk about the pain that it causes them to think that it may not return.
When the phone rings Edgar and his wife are startled. They expect to hear Roger’s voice on the other end of the line, to let them know that their travThis one to the United States went well.
*If you are looking for a missing migrant in the Americas, see a list of organizations you can contact on the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project website.
Remember that you can receive notifications from BBC Mundo. Download the new version of our app and activate them so you don’t miss out on our best content.
BBC-NEWS-SRC: IMPORT DATE: 2023-03-21 15:20:07