From the Andes to El Hueco
Compared to the 3,145 kilometers separating Mexico from the US, the 586 separating Ecuador from Colombia seem like a breath of fresh air. However, this is where one of the longest, most grueling and difficult journeys that an immigrant, heading north in search of the American Dream embarks on, begins.
AL DÍA travelled through the first stage of the journey and talked to transporters, of not only smuggled products but also of persons, on the border between Ecuador and Colombia to learn more about this situation.
According to unofficial figures, over 30 thousand Cubans, Chinese, Africans and Ecuadorians cross the border from Ecuador to Colombia year after year to being their procession towards the US. The budget to pay for the coyotes varies but may cost between 15 and 20 thousand dollars and 30 thousand, for the Chinese, and the trip may take months.
An average of eight borders are crossed: Ecuador -Colombia- Panama- Costa Rica- Nicaragua- Honduras- Guatemala- Mexico- United States of America and some are forced to stay for months in some of these countries, work as undocumented persons and make payments towards their debt. Some are luckier and receive money their relatives send from the US so that they can complete the journey.
Prices, just as on Wall Street, are always at the service of the mafia, coyote and drug trafficking market. Upon arriving in Colombia, the Colombian guerrilla, FARC and the paramilitary forces increasingly control more of the path from Pasto to Turbo, before entering Panama. The gangs and the "zetas" retake control in Central America, at which time Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans join the procession.
From Quito to Tulcán
At the Northern Transport Terminal of the city of Quito, Carcelén, one takes the bus to Tulcán, the last step before reaching Ipiales, already located in Colombian territory.
It takes an average of four and a half hours to get to the passage through the Rumichaca bridge, 7 kilometers from Colombia.
Though there is more than one roadblock on the way to Tulcán, the authorities at this time, and in general in departing, only ask the driver for his documents and check the baggage area in search of anything unlawful. Once in Tulcán, no matter what the hour, the next path to Ipiales is travelled during the early morning hours.
“We cross the people and products between one and four in the morning and, when we do this, it is because the coyote has already negotiated with the officials in charge of that shift", said Jerónimo (the names used in this article have been changed to protect the identity of the cited individuals)” a tanned border-born Colombian living in Ipiales who drives all night, making two trips per night, at the most.
He charges each trip at 180 thousand Colombian pesos, which is equal to around 97 dollars and he is able to transport four people in each trip; each journey back and forth takes him no more than two hours. If Jerónimo works four hours every night, he earns approximately US$2,910 a month. No bad, especially when we consider that he is able to work half-time during the day, performing another job.
“Those I transport the most are Chinese, Cubans, Nigerians and Ecuadorians", he said. "I have to disguise them a bit, you know, with sunglasses, hoods, especially the Chinese, because there is no problem with Cubans and Ecuadorians since there are many blacks in Ecuador and Colombia, especially on the Coasts", he stated.
Why Chinese, Nigerians and Cubans?
In 2008, the government administration of the President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, eliminated the visa requirement to enter the country for 130 nationalities. This resulted in an avalanche of "tourists", especially from Cuba, the African Continent and China.
The Chinese presence and influence in the Ecuadorian territory and other places in Latin America is no secret. A recent Report "Beijing, Banks and Barrels: China and Oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon”, lists the loans and contributions from China that on the account of oil ascends to over $16 billion. Ecuador depends on China for oil and for technical support on the extraction and exploitation of mines.
The Chinese can be seen at large and luxurious companies working hand by hand with the Ecuadorians. However, not all the Chinese arriving in Ecuador hold top management positions. Many of them use Ecuador as a first requirement on their way towards the North.
Relations between Havana and Quito have been strengthened since 2007. Cubans can be in the Ecuadoran territory for at least three months without any requirement. And though many have had to pay US$300.00 upon arriving at the airport, a requirement that is not listed upon the official requirements for entry, instead of lowering, the number increases.
AL DÍA spoke with Teresa, Emilio and Josué, who have been in Quito for over two years and still hope to reach Miami. They, like all their countrymen, received an invitation letter and then began their time “without official documents” in the Andes, a status that does not allow them to take a plane to the North. Their only way out is by land.
Carlos, also Cuban, happily recounted his costs: $2,000.00 for the invitation letter; $500 for the marriage; he had to pay an exit ticket and tax to the Cuban government, and the marriage -ink, signatures and negotiation-- was only a temporary reality.
For the majority of Cubans, Ecuador is but a stop so that they may get nearer to the American dream through a route that though longer, seems to be safer for many. According to official sources in Ecuador, in 2010, 37 thousand entered Ecuador. This figure, which must have increased since the invitation letter was eliminated as a requirement in 2014 thanks to the "excellent bilateral relations" reported by the chancellery.
The situation is a bit blurry regarding the African Continent but the chancellery informed us that at the beginning of 2014, the Correa government ensured that one of its priorities will be to "Strengthen relations with African Countries".
According to the partiality of Quito residents whom we spoke to, “Nigerians are not trustworthy and generally wash cars, watch people’s cars –and sell drugs at the Mariscal”.
We have no evidence of drug sales but do regarding car cleaning and watching. It is not easy to talk to them given the language barrier, a barrier they seem to want to keep up --even when they may know the language-- in order to maintain their anonymity.
From the Andean Dream to the American Dream
Completely full and ready to head out with Jerónimo in his carr. Two Cubans, one Nigerian, our transporter and AL DÍA. All in silence during the first 10 minutes. In keeping with the characteristics of all good Latinos, it wasn't long before the conversation began. Our Nigerian friend knew no more than four words in Spanish. The one-hour trip passed by quickly with not a single stop. Well, there was one, to change currency into dollars.
Those who exchange currency are not the exception. The calculator shows an already manipulated rate, which they add a bit more to. But there is no time or sense of peace to count.
Without further interruptions we arrive at Ipiales, where the coyote was waiting. Carlos shared the information shared by word of mouth between the Cubans. The 85-mile journey through the jungle between Colombia and Panama is far from our stop. This route through the jungle is the same route used by the Colombian guerrilla –the FARC—and the paramilitary and the drug traffickers. Once you are in Panama, the mafia changes.
As in other borders, here the traffic runs both ways. Unofficial sources state that the smuggling of oil, rice, gasoline, medicines, weapons and explosive material for the Colombian guerrilla, in addition to human trafficking towards the North travels from Ecuador to Colombia. From Colombia to Ecuador, vegetables, mobile phones stolen in order to be activated in the neighboring country, cocaine, marihuana and heroin travel towards the European market; as do Colombians fleeing justice.
There were just two of us on the way back, Al DÍA and Jerónimo remembered what he had forgotten with so many witnesses. “Once I smuggled ignition cables supposedly headed for the Colombian guerrilla. For months I transported a man who carried CDs to Ecuador. One day I asked what he dealt in and he told me that he carried cocaine. Marihuana and heroin are hidden in the car, the product trucks; hidden in the roof or between containers, and people are also hidden between containers. At times the officers have spikes passing through but this does not happen when the coyote has made arrangements with the authorities. There are small cargos that they seize and that serve as a distraction when the large cargo is passing through”, Jerónimo continued.
“One day I picked up an undocumented Colombian in Ipiales. Half way along the way he told me he had killed two people and fled from jail at Pasto. I didn’t ask another question, one never knows who one will find”, stated Jerónimo, when arriving back to Tulcán.
The truth is that many Nigerians, Cubans and Chinese have lost count of time and ended up embracing the Andean Dream when faced with difficulties in order to come up with the money for the “crowning” in the North. As mixed as they are, you would think that the Ecuadorians and, specifically, the residents of Quito would lack any trace of xenophobia. However, of the 10 people I talked with, not one did not refer to the migrants with derogatory words and clichés.
We all live in a dream world.
Correction: This article was updated July 23 to correct a translation error wherein it said Korean government instead of Correa's government.