This is one of the last photographs of the group of Ecuadorians who disappeared after arriving in the Bahamas. Photo: Courtesy of 1800 Migrante
A photograph was the link between Jime B.M. and five missing Ecuadorian migrants. Jime B.M. was arrested on May 27 at his home in Durán, after the Public Prosecutor's Office and the Police raided his home as part of an investigation into an alleged group dedicated to migrant smuggling.
The prosecutor of the Organized Crime Unit, Jhon Camposano, explained that this investigation arose from a complaint on social networks. The police located the relatives of the missing migrants on their way to the United States through the Bahamas.
The alert from a sister of the missing was the first to be known. Alicia Calle said that since last March she has not heard from her relatives, as three of the migrants in the group belong to her family. "They tell us that there was a shipwreck, they lie to us that they are detained, they make us dizzy saying that they are kidnapped and they have even stolen money from us to supposedly investigate the whereabouts of our families, we are desperate and we are looking for answers", she told the organization 1800 Migrante, based in the USA.
The five missing are from the province of Cañar. They are María Eliza Vera Cajilema, 45 years old, who was born in La Troncal county; Cristian Paul Calle Palacios, 38 years old, married, has two young daughters, lived in Sageo, Biblián county; Carmel Carolina Calle Urguilés, 36 years old, has two children aged 13 and 17; Juan Carlos Calle Palacios, 40 years old, lived in the Shishiquin neighborhood, in the city of Azogues; and Lia Elizabeth Pulla Campoverde, 22 years old, is from Llimpi, also in Azogues.
The family members handed over to the police their cell phones that had records of conversations with their relatives about their progress on the route and contacts with the alleged traffickers. Through these means, the Ecuadorians told their families that they had arrived in Panama. They left on January 7 from the Guayaquil airport. Then they traveled on another flight to the Bahamas International Airport on the island of Freeport. One of the young women sent a WhatsApp message with that location to a relative on March 6. She said they could no longer use the cell phone from there. They promised to contact each other once they had crossed into the US. But that was the last information about them.
On one of the cell phones that the family handed over to the police was a photograph of the group of migrants with Jime B.M., who had also traveled with them. In the photo, the migrants are hugging and one of them sent it to his family. The police found the same image on Jime B.M.'s cell phone and it was one of the elements that led to his arrest.
11 PEOPLE HAVE DIED DURING THEIR JOURNEY TO THE UNITED STATES. THIS IS THE SO-CALLED "RISKY MIGRATION" IN WHICH ECUADORIANS WHO RELY ON COYOTERISM TO REACH THEIR DESTINATION. IN ADDITION, 11 PEOPLE ARE REPORTED MISSING.
At the arraignment hearing, prosecutor Camposano presented the audio and video evidence from the cell phones of the relatives of the disappeared, the migratory movement of the victims (the countries through which they passed are detailed) and the triangulation of calls from the cell phone numbers of the defendants.
Jime B.M. said in his version that he travels to Panama constantly to bring cell phones to Ecuador, new and used, to sell them. But this does not coincide with the chats in the case file. For example, most of the migrants had Jime B.M. as their contact.
Last week, the Vice Minister of Human Mobility, Carlos Alberto Velastegui, admitted that there are 11 people dead in what he calls "risky migration" of Ecuadorians who rely on coyoterism to reach the United States. In addition, 11 people are reported missing.
The official said, in a conversation with the press, that in all cases they are working with the families. He pointed out that the complaints are scarce because the families are tied to these networks. The Foreign Ministry has clear routes and is working in an inter-institutional manner in the face of a problem which, he acknowledged, is a new wave of risky and irregular migration to the United States.
The expensive route through the Bahamas
The group began their journey last January 7. They reached the alleged coyotes through a chain of recommendations.
The first part of their route was by plane to Freeport Island, where the Bahamas' international airport is located. The rest of the journey would have been by speedboat to Bimini Island, which is the closest point in the Bahamas to Miami. But in Ecuador, Foreign Ministry officials in Cañar said they had received no information of possible shipwrecks, kidnappings, detentions, hospitalizations, or deaths through Ecuador's consulates in the Bahamas, Miami, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
According to the organization 1800 Migrante, the Caribbean route is not new, but it has regained momentum. Coyoteros take migrants to Panama, from where they take another flight or board a cruise ship to the Bahamas to cross to the Bimini Islands.
"All this seems easy and covered under the cloak of a tourist pleasure trip, it doesn't raise much suspicion until the unimaginable happens," 1800 Migrante said in a statement. Its spokesman, William Murilo, said: "This route is not new, it has been used in the past, apparently it works because we have reports that they reach the U.S., but it is more expensive and as dangerous as the Mexican route. There are already extreme signs of desperation of people who no longer just throw themselves to cross the deserts, they also throw themselves to cross the dangerous waters of the Caribbean Sea to reach that American dream they long yearn for and unfortunately they bet everything, even their lives".
The migrants paid between $16,000 to $20,000. It is a more expensive route compared to the one through Mexico, which is the one with the highest increase. Velastegui affirmed that this route has tripled since the Mexican government stopped requesting visas for Ecuadorian travelers. The highest point of travel to Mexico from Ecuador was 174,000 people in 2019, which meant triple the number of travelers in the previous situation. The official added that, as long as they have papers in order, Ecuadorians are not prohibited from leaving the country to any destination in the world. During 2020, the year the pandemic began, travel dropped to 70,000 people.
But through the Bahamas route, coyoteros make other offers. According to Prosecutor Camposano, the traffickers possibly promise greater security.
Among the documentation collected by the Prosecutor's Office in the raids were receipts and deposits from bank accounts, passports, identity records, money, and a CPU, which are in the chain of custody of the Judicial Police. In addition to Jime B.M., his daughter, Jennifer B. M., who is the owner of one of the bank accounts where the migrants made deposits, was also prosecuted. She, in her version, said that she lent her account to her father.
A similar argument was used by Sandra R. P., who stated that she gave her account for the deposits because the account of her brother, Orly R. P., had judicial problems. Orly R.P. was an employee of a travel agency, where the police also raided. Initially, the Prosecutor's Office reported that this agency, located in downtown Guayaquil, apparently facilitated the departure of migrants to the United States. But prosecutor Camposano clarified, in an interview with PlanV, that the agency had no involvement in the crime. Rosa M. A. is another of the defendants because she was the contact with one of the travelers. Three of the five defendants are in custody. Only Jennifer B. M. and Sandra R. P. are forbidden to leave the country and to appear before the prosecutor (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) in Guayaquil.
In the investigation appeared the name of a citizen, possibly a foreigner, to whom also the missing persons made deposits. He could be the person who receives the migrants in Bahamas, said the prosecutor. The Ecuadorian police have communicated with their counterparts in Panama to gather information.
Before boarding, the migrants received instructions from the defendants on what to say when going through customs in the countries on the route. On the day of boarding, they were instructed to arrive separately at the airport and say they were tourists. But on the way, the group went through difficulties. Their relatives said that the coyote demanded per diems to stay in comfortable hotels with good meals. The migrants, on the other hand, ate and slept scarcely.
While this was happening, their relatives in Ecuador have been pressured to pay debts. "They call us to collect debts and we don't even know where they are, how will we also go to pay the debts, please help us find our children," Juana Palacios, mother of two of the missing youths, told 1800 Migrante.
The Prosecutor's Office knew of the existence of a second group that was going to leave by the same route but gave up after the disappearance of the Ecuadorians in the Bahamas.
More complaints, fewer resolutions
Since 2015, the Prosecutor General's Office has received more than 100 complaints per year for migrant smuggling. 2016 was the year with the highest number of complaints: 163. In 2020, in the year of the pandemic, this figure dropped to 96 complaints and as of April 2021, 34 complaints have already been filed.
But if the number of complaints is compared to the number of cases solved by the justice system, the figures drop sharply. For example, in 2019 there were 146 complaints in the Prosecutor's Office, but only 50 finished judicial processes. In 2020, the same happened: 96 complaints and 46 cases solved. It should be clarified that trials can take a long time and be completed in terms longer than a year. But according to figures from the Judiciary Council, between 46 and 50 processes are processed per year.
Since 2014, Cañar is the province with the highest number of complaints of smuggling of migrants with 321 cases reported until last April. In second place is Azuay with 293 cases in the same period and in third place, Pichincha with 104 complaints. Both in 2020 and 2021, the highest number of complaints has originated in the province of Azuay.
Ecuadorians face more risks
Ecuadorian migrants are facing great risks to reach the United States. This was the case of Washington Quizhpi, 25 years old, who traveled to Mexico and crossed to North America, where he was detained and expelled to Ciudad Juarez, one of the most violent cities in the world. Quizhpi - a young man with a hearing disability - was alone, penniless and living on the streets. He suffered the theft of his shoes and all his belongings. The complaint made by his mother, Salomé Quizhpe, on social networks and to the organization 1800 Migrante was echoed. A Mexican citizen published on her social networks a photo of the ID card of an Ecuadorian who was wandering near the family business. The organization assured that it pushed the search for the Ecuadorian, who was found disoriented. He was cared for in a shelter in Ciudad Juarez. His mother, who resides in the state of Maryland, and her lawyers were able to get the U.S. authorities to approve her son's admission.
Translated by Manuel Novik