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Families of migrants who were traveling in a bus that crashed in Panama still don’t know what happened to their loved ones

Published on February 20, 2023

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Twenty-two Ecuadorians were traveling on the bus carrying 66 irregular migrants.

Pain, tears and uncertainty overwhelm three families from Imbabura. They are desperate to know more about their relatives, who on February 7th left excited to try to make the so-called ‘American dream’ come true.

The three compatriots, faced with the difficult economic situation and the lack of opportunities for them in Ecuador, were forced to leave the country and go in search of better possibilities in the United States, willing to overcome any risk and danger, especially in the Darién Gap.

The treacherous section of jungle, on the Colombian-Panamanian border, has claimed the lives of several migrants from exhaustion, accidents, dehydration, and animal attacks.

However, the men from Imbabura managed to traverse the Darién successfully, and they and their families thought they would soon arrive in the US.

But now, the three Imbabureños are part of the lists of dead, missing or injured after a bus fell into a precipice near Gualaca in the Panamanian province of Chiriquí, on the border between Panama and Costa Rica, last Wednesday, February 15th.

According to Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Holguín, 22 Ecuadorians were traveling in the destroyed vehicle, of which as many as six are still unaccounted for.

Wilmer Pantoja (27 years old), who was part of the group, is one of the people who remains missing. His wife, María Andrango, is devastated and is demanding more information from the authorities.

Pantoja, together with his two friends, embarked with excitement for the journey to the United States, unaware that this adventure was going to leave tragedy and pain in their wake.

Difficulty in verifying dead and missing

After surviving the dangerous route thru the Darién jungle, they were staying in a shelter while they waited to board the first bus their group of migrants would take for the next leg of their trip.

Unfortunately, during a police control operation Wilmer was asked for his judicial record document, which he did not have at the time. He and his friends were forced to get out of the vehicle.

After finding a solution to his problem, the three men were able to board another bus the next morning. Tragically, this second bus was the one that crashed in Gualaca.

Panama’s migration chief, Samira Gozaine, told reporters that authorities believed the accident had happened after the bus missed a turn into the migrant center where it was supposed to leave its 66 passengers. Local reports said the driver lost control of the vehicle after turning back and the bus plunged off an escarpment, leaving dozens of passengers dead.

The vehicle was part of the fleet organized by the government to try to channel the migratory flow.

Panama warned on Thursday that it will be difficult to identify the migrants killed— whose bodies were stored in a refrigerated truck after the morgue’s capacity was surpassed— in one of the worst bus accidents in its history.

“This process will take time, (…) the state of the bodies and the lack of ante-mortem data make it difficult for the experts, especially with regard to identification,” the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, said in a statement.

“Information will be needed from the migrants’ countries of origin,” such as fingerprint and dental records and DNA samples from family members “for genetic comparisons,” the Institute added.

Pantoja’s traveling companions, Fernando Urresta and Alexander Figueroa, both from Imbabura, reportedly died in the crash, though their relatives have been unable to get information from Panamanian or Ecuadorian officials to confirm what happened to the men. Wilmer is Colombian but has Ecuadorian nationality.

On Friday, February 17th, they expected to meet with the governor of Imbabura, Fernando Chalanpuente, to officially find out what happened and to coordinate with the Foreign Ministry the repatriation of the corpses, if their deaths were confirmed.

Andrango said she is getting even less information as Pantoja has only been reported as missing.

“The danger is over”

She last spoke to Wilmer on February 14th when he was boarding the second bus.

“They decided to leave to take this risky and dangerous journey on Tuesday, February 7th,” said Maria, who stated that they left excited in search of fulfilling the American dream, all thinking that they were going to change their lives.

Maria says she and her husband had a bakery in Atuntaqui, but the losses they endured during the pandemic and the slow economic recovery in the town that followed, forced Wilmer to make the decision to leave the country. He left Ecuador after being motivated by friends who managed reach the US illegally.

She adds that the uncertainty of her husband’s fate is destroying his family.

“We have two children who ask about him, we need to know what is happening, or what happened to Wilmer,” added the disheartened woman, inside a humble home, located in the San Luis neighborhood, in Andrade Marín, in Atuntaqui.

During each stage of the journey (which was supposed to take twelve more days), he called his wife whenever possible to tell her how he was doing. When he left the Darién Gap, which is the hardest stretch where dozens of migrants have died, Wilmer called her to tell her to be calm, “Mija, all the danger is over.”

However, when Pantoja boarded the second bus in Chiriquí to continue the journey, Maria’s illusion that he was safe ended. Her restlessness began that afternoon—when he got into the vehicle, Wilmer had told her that he would call her between 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, but that never happened.

Wilmer’s sister Mayeli Pantoja is the one who told Maria that Wilmer is one of those passengers that is still missing, but that information came second hand and even now, the only concrete information they have that he is still missing is the fact that he has not appeared on the official list of those killed in the crash.

Along with the three men from Imbabura, fifteen citizens of Pichincha, one from Loja, one from El Oro and two from Tungurahua, were traveling on the bus according to Foreign Minister Holguín, who announced that the government will provide all the facilities to repatriate the bodies of the compatriots.


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