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Sunday, April 20 2014 @ 02:25 PM EDT

Swede Adventure Traveler Missing In The Darien Jungle

Expat Tales By Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com - A 26 year old Swedish man has been missing in the notorious Darien jungle region on the border between Panama and Colombia for almost two months now.

Jan Philip Braunisch was making his final preparations for what he described as a "three month trip through Central America, that will include walking through at least one jungle (the Darién region of Panama, on the border to Colombia), in the rainy season."

He posted a tagline of "9 countries, 3 months" on his blog "Philip in Central America." The nine countries probably would have been Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico - before turning to the United States.

Philip made his first post to the blog on 6 May 2013 as he was making his final preparations to pack and leave for the trip. His last posting was just nine days later on 15 May 2013, and no one has heard from him since.

His plan was to fly into Bogota, Colombia - then make his way over land by hiking through the Darien on foot. He was supposed to be back in the United States by early August 2013 in order to take some sort of a test at a university, then travel on to Sweden for a couple of weeks.

Philip's younger sister contacted me on 4 July 2013 as his friends and family members began their search for him. My intent here is to spread Philip's story as far and wide as possible, in hopes someone might know something about where he is, or what happened to him.

Philip knew he was going to be trekking through some dangerous territory in the jungles of the Darien. As he was packing and getting ready to leave, someone posted a comment on his blog saying "Based on what I've read about the Darién region, all I have to say is: good luck and you are insane."

But at the same time, Philip was an experienced traveler. And he was also no dummy. He was studying for his PhD at Purdue University as a Science and Technology Fullbright Fellowship, and had also made an earlier trip through Africa. Before setting off to see Central America, he had already visited more than 50 countries at the relatively tender age of 26;

  • Jan Braunisch
  • Sweden
  • Purdue University
  • Statistics
  • 2012 Fulbright S&T Fellow

  • Philip Braunisch is working on his Ph.D in statistics at Purdue University. The aim of his research is to apply recent advances in Machine Learning to create a system for visualizing speech on a computer screen in a way that makes it easy to understand what is being said just by looking at the visualization, thus letting deaf people understand spoken language. Such a system for visualization could be put on a handheld device to be carried by the deaf person in order to let him live just like anyone else. If designed correctly, such a system would also help the deaf person to learn to speak himself since he can compare the visualization of his own speech with that of others, and thus learn by imitation, without the need for expensive and tedious speech tutoring.

  • While working on his degree, Philip taught several undergraduate courses in mathematics, went for exchange to the National University of Singapore and studied one semester of chinese at Tsinghua University, People's Republic of China. Philip, being fluent in Swedish, German, English, French and Chinese and having visited over 50 countries, loves to learn languages and to travel. Before commencing his Ph.D studies, Philip made a six-month, self-organized trip to West and Central Africa in order to learn french and to try to find out why this continent is so poor and what we can do to help.

With all of that having been said, think twice before calling him stupid for having set off into the Darien as a backpacker. I'm pretty sure he knew what he was getting himself into, and he went anyway.

Philip's travels during his first few days in Colombia are fairly well documented on his blog. In a nutshell, he arrived in Bogota on the afternoon of Wednesday, 8 May 2013. I'm going to summarize his trip through Colombia here, in an abbreviated version;

  • Upon arrival in Bogota he caught a ride to a "cheap hotel" in "downtown" section.

  • He took a nap after the flight, but then woke up at about 9:00 pm and went out to get something to eat. Due to safety concerns and worries about his security because of the neighborhood he was in, he returned to his hotel and munched on Skittles instead.

  • The next day, on Thursday 9 May 2013, Philip made his way to Mariquita, located in the department of Tolima, on his way towards the Darien. He didn't want to stay in a hotel again, but at the end of the town he said he "didn't feel secure" so he talked the residents of that last house into letting him sleep on the floor for $3. He posted some photos of the house and his stay with them.

  • On Friday, 10 May 2013, Philip road a bus from Mariquita to Manizales, still making his way towards the Darien. He said his plan was to "try to go to Quibdó and then take a boat down the Rio Atrato, and then on some smaller river towards the Panamanian border." Philip took the following photo apparently from the bus, saying: "The fact that there are bullet holes are from both sides makes me think that someone wasn't just practicing his shooting skills… People say things are much better than before, though, no rebels around any more."

  • Philip made his next blog posting on Monday, 13 May 2013, as he traveled from Arauca to Quibdó. Again, this post was mostly about the things he saw, the people he met, and the food he ate.

  • Philip posted "Previously there were hardly any police controls, but as soon as we entered the department of Chocó, which everyone says has guerilla presence, there were lots of them."

  • It seems he was mostly hitchhiking and trying to avoid having to pay for his transportation whenever possible. He even pointed out that it's next to impossible to catch a ride on a motorcycle, because the police strictly enforce helmet laws. He did catch a ride with a truck driver, and posted a photo of him. He put up this photo of the "scenic road between Viterbo and Apía."

  • By Monday, 13 May 2013 Philip had made his way to Quibdó and he thought this might be his last chance to update his blog before leaving Colombia and entering Panama. He posted the following;

    • "I went to the police here in Quibdó to ask if I can have an exit stamp in my passport. I was honest to them about going to Panama over land, and they didn't even say it’s dangerous or anything! After some running around between the police and the immigration offices, they finally told me that the immigration is closed today but that I don't really need a stamp anyway. I hope they are right!

    • Next time I write I'll hopefully be in Panama. I’m going to walk a bit along the river. Taking the boat is ridiculously expensive, about $70 from here to Riosucio."

  • But Philip made one more post to his blog on Wednesday, 15 May 2013 - his last. He said "I’m in riosucio now, on the atrato river. From here it’s not far from panama. There are supposedly quite many paths from here to panama. We'll see how it goes." He also reportedly sent an email with very similar content to his girlfriend. And that is the last that anyone has heard from him.

His Friends and Family Begin to Search: Philip's friends and family have been doing what they can to mount a search effort for him, mostly through the Internet. They made this post to a forum to ask for advice, and that's how they got into contact with me. They have also been posting this "Missing Person" poster;

I asked them to send me some additional, current photos, and they sent me these --

This photo was taken on a sailboat in 2010 --

Now I'm not absolutely sure, and have not confirmed this yet, but Philip might have been wearing these clothes as shown in the missing person flyer. According to his girlfriend "Philip was wearing a green t-shirt, with the word Fulbright written in big white letters in the front. I remember he took no other shoes, only his sandals. He had shorts and he took some long waterproof pants, with 2 white lines on the side."

And the t-shirt might have been something like this...

But whatever, you get the idea. This logo, large, white letters, on a green t-shirt...

They also sent me this scan of his passport, but with the passport numbers blurred out. I explained the importance of getting his passport number out there, because at this point the potential for identity theft is the least of your worries. Throughout Latin America the small little local officials often make notes with pen and paper of the people who pass through their checkpoints - be it Army, National Police, Immigrations, or Customs - and these collections of information are seldom put into a digital form or shared. Also it's common for small little hotels and hostels to check in their guests using their passport numbers, and this is especially true for international trekkers. Anyway, his passport number will be coming later, but for now here's a scan of his passport;

Unfortunately, we posted the following article from La Critica on 4 July 2013, about a set of human remains discovered by SENAFRONT units in the Darien;

  • Authorities found part of a human skeleton in Quebrada Rangoda community of Bajo Grande, in the province of Darien.

  • The bones were hidden inside of a green sweater with black stripes, but only two femur bones, a rib and skull were found.

  • What happened to the rest of the body remains unknown, at the moment the authorities are investigating the cause of death and sex of the person.

  • SENAFRONT General Director Frank Alexis Abrego stated "Our security is permanent and we will continue to provide peace and tranquility to all of our communities, we thank all the people that give us valuable information that allows us to carry out our work effectively." (La Critica)

It would be wise for Philip's family members to travel to Panama, for two reasons. First of all, they should make a formal missing person's complaint and provide them with all of the information they have. In addition, a blood relative should provide them with a DNA sample which can be used to positively identify any remains that might be found, including those related to the above article. But most important is that missing person's complaint. Without that, the Panamanian authorities won't know (or do) anything.

It's A Dangerous Neighborhood: Drug traffickers use the trails running through the Darien jungle to move cocaine from Colombia into Panama. They will make large plastic covered "bundles" each with about 50 pounds of cocaine, about the most that one man can carry. The drug traffickers will be armed with AK-47's and other weapons, mostly to defend themselves from others who would kill them in order to steal their loads. This area is also the home of the 57th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), responsible for the kidnappings three New Tribes missionaries in 1993. They were also responsible for the kidnapping of the Cuban-American Cecilio Juan Padron from his home in Panama City in 2008 by Panamanian police officers, who were working for the 57th FARC Front when they handed him over.

So yeah, walking overland through the Darien from Colombia to Panama is practically the definition of adventure travel. It's somewhat possible - but not likely - Philip might be in an Indian village somewhere in the Darien, studying the Embera Wounaan language. Please spread the word, and if you know anything please contact the local authorities.

Copyright 2013 Panama-Guide.com.

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