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3 de Noviembre del 2021
Lectura: 18 minutos
3 de Noviembre del 2021
Redacción Plan V
Human trafficking mafias have "generated" billions in 2021

A Mexican army soldier attempts to detain a group of irregular migrants at a point on the border with the United States. Photo: AFP

Some 110 Ecuadorians have died on their irregular journey to the United States between 2019 and September of this year. Another 33 remain missing in the same period. The risks faced by migrants, especially women, on this journey are not commensurate with the huge profits of human traffickers. A criminal business that in 2021 alone "generated" about one billion dollars for the mafias.

In 2019 and 2020, 67 Ecuadorians died on the border between Mexico and the United States and so far in 2021 there are 34 (5 on the Mexican side and 29 in the United States). There are also missing persons. So far this year, 29 disappearances have been reported, of which the authorities solved 12 cases, but there are 17 pending cases.

The Vice Minister of Human Mobility, Ambassador Luis Vayas Valdivieso, in dialogue with this portal said that the Foreign Ministry views the recent irregular migratory phenomenon "with great concern, but we also have the desire and the spirit to work to solve it. It is a complex issue, but we can work to provide alternatives".

The first stop on this risky route to the United States used to be the Mexico City airport. Until August 2021, out of 111,000 Ecuadorians who traveled to that country, 77,000 did not return. With the visa restrictions imposed again by Mexico, the flow dropped substantially, as recognized by Yadira De los Santos, director of the National Institute of Migration of that country: "with the visa requirement for Ecuadorian citizens, inadmissions at that airport were substantially reduced, which means greater security for Ecuadorians, as it prevents them from being victims of organized crime".

When a person dies alone, it is the Mexican or U.S. authorities who inform the authorities of the Ecuadorian consulates in Monterrey and Mexico City, and in the U.S., the consulates in Houston and Phoenix. For the staff of the four consulates, who work intensively on this issue, the most heartbreaking situations occur when the deceased have been accompanied by children and these are abandoned.

"The work we have to do is that there is confidence of the person who suffers these problems to approach the authorities. It is worrying the little information we have, that they approach to tell what has happened, because otherwise we have to wait for the foreign authorities to contact us to be able to assist the victims", said Vayas.

This October 20, the vice minister and a short delegation visited the Mexico City airport, to verify the space where thousands of Ecuadorians are detained and even deported in their attempt to enter the North American country. Mexico resumed visa requirements for Ecuadorians as of September 4, 2021 and the measure will be in effect until March 4, 2022, said Vayas.

Officials from the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry and Mexican immigration authorities toured Mexico City's international airport on October 20 to see how Ecuadorians arriving at that destination are treated, many of whom are deported. Photo: Courtesy Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Part of the facilities of the Benito Juarez airport in Mexico City. Photo: Courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

When an Ecuadorian dies at the border, the treatment is different in each case. If the death was non-violent there is one protocol and if it was violent there is another. The time it takes to repatriate a body is different in each case. DNA identification can take two to three months. It is also influenced by the time it takes for the family to accept the DNA test. In violent deaths, the case enters the criminal justice system in Mexico or the United States and also takes time.

The vice minister notes the "enormous effort" made by the Foreign Affairs staff at the consulates on the U.S.-Mexico border. They work 24/7 and weekends are the most intense. The Foreign Ministry is evaluating the opening of new consulates, but the limitation continues to be the budget and human resources.

Ecuadorians who come to the consulates present different types of situations: people who have been assaulted, robbed or kidnapped. Human trafficking networks move billions of dollars. If of the 77 thousand Ecuadorians who have not returned to Ecuador so far this year, 80% of these people hired coyotes to cross to the United States, and if these people paid an average of 15 thousand dollars, we can be talking about a criminal activity that has "generated" approximately 1 billion dollars between January and August of this year.

A matter of additional concern for authorities and family members of travelers is that it often happens that once in Mexico, traffickers lock travelers in houses and then kidnap them to ask for an additional five thousand dollars per person. This is very common, said Ambassador Vayas "and it is only then that the family approaches the consulates to report what is happening. We have to maintain due confidentiality, because if the kidnappers find out, they can kill them".

Human trafficking is not only the act of transferring, in an irregular and risky manner, a person or group of people from one country to another. It is human trafficking that also has purposes such as prostitution, sexual and labor slavery, organ trafficking, drug trafficking....

Thanks to academic reports and ethnographic projects, authorities have found that there are several reasons why illegal migration has increased in recent months, beyond the impacts of the pandemic: poverty, lack of opportunities in the country, also influences the migratory tradition of some areas of southern Ecuador, when young people come of age and emigrate. It is also influenced by the fact that trafficking networks are not passive: they offer their services in social networks, they even finance the trips with the mortgage of their houses or assets due to debts and if they do not have assets, they ask them to carry drug packages. Among the causes there is also the "call effect". That is, compatriots living in the United States call their relatives and friends and offer them work.

These networks, seeing that Mexico and Guatemala have put a visa, seeing that their "business" becomes less attractive because the price goes up, they go to other countries; they have transnationalized their services in Latin America. In Ecuador, as a result of the high demand, the transfer prices increased to an average of USD 15,000 to USD 30,000.

Mexico's decision to impose visas for Ecuadorians has concerned us, said Ambassador Vayas, "because this migratory distortion directly affects commercial exchange and tourism. But Ecuadorians who want to travel and meet the requirements have no problem; neither if they have a Schengen visa, or a visa to the United States. It is respectable the Mexican decision that is for 6 months, until March 4, 2022, but Guatemala has no expiration date".


After March 4 of next year, Mexico will evaluate the situation, but after the measure, the irregular migratory flow has been substantially reduced. It could be this factor or that the gangs of traffickers have moved to other countries or that the cost has doubled and now they ask for 30 thousand dollars to complete the trip to the United States, said the vice minister.

In spite of the risks and the increased controls, Ecuadorians are taking the trip and looking for other routes, which are offered by human traffickers. Vayas Valdivieso says that the decision is also influenced by a "misperception": President Biden's policy, contrary to Trump's, has been interpreted by traffickers and travelers in the wrong way. This has led many people to travel with children, believing that by arriving with a minor they are guaranteed entry into the United States. This is false. If irregular migration is so risky and tough for an adult, for a child it is more serious. Crossing the desert is for them a path of death and some have died. Without water, without food... There have also been cases of children who have been abandoned by their relatives.

The Ecuadorian authorities detected a network of fictitious "agencies" operating in the provinces of the Ecuadorian Austro, whose operators are now under investigation by the prosecutor. There is a work of investigation and control by the Prosecutor's Office and the Police, said the deputy minister. More inter-institutional support is needed, also at the international level because they are transnational networks. It is being done and more control is required of the alleged "travel agencies, which are all over the country, especially in the south of the country, which are already closed and under investigation, which are not agencies but part of the network".

There are agencies and airlines that have transferred thousands of people to Mexico, with legitimate documents. It is not a crime to transfer people from one country to another, said the Vice Chancellor, the purpose is illegal. That is, "they were not going to see the Virgin of Guadalupe. The airlines have the obligation to review the requirements, by IATA standards and by request of the countries where they take the passengers".

What is Ecuador doing beyond the investigation, search and capture of human trafficking networks? Several state and civil society institutions have held technical roundtables to address the problem and four working groups have been formed with proposals to generate an orderly migration to the United States. At the beginning of December it will be evaluated if the proposals can work based on the observations of: Attorney General's Office, Human Rights Secretariat, National Police, Foreign Ministry, Social Front ministries and civil society....

The latter has a relevant participation, according to Vice Minister Vayas. "For example, the academy does research and produces reports to have a social and scientific knowledge of the phenomenon. Young people are the ones who travel the most to a risky migration. There are also associations of people, especially women, who have returned. The cases, in relation to migrant women, are terrible. Women who have traveled and did not manage to cross have associations, organized groups to transmit the dangers and alternatives. It is necessary for people who are willing to migrate irregularly to assess the risks. They are too strong and those who receive this message should at least know what can happen to them".

Chambers of commerce and foreign embassies are also involved in this effort. For example, the United States has offered scholarships for students from the south of the country. There are also agreements with Mexican and U.S. authorities. The scholarships are focused on young women. There are other countries that participate, such as Canada and Germany, which offers scholarships to young women entrepreneurs. We are also trying to regulate family reunification. So far this year there have been 150 requests for reunification and 100 have already been authorized.

More than 500,000 Venezuelans in Ecuador

The Vice-Ministry of Human Mobility estimates that in Ecuador there are about 500,000 Venezuelans living permanently in the country. And by the end of the year there will be five thousand more. These are figures that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs manages with UNHCR, the UN Agency for Refugees. The numbers are growing, because by 2022 it is estimated that there will be 550 thousand permanent Venezuelans.

This figure has been reached in a way that may seem strange and even artisanal, but there is no other way. The Venezuelans who arrive in a regular way are counted, among those who enter and those who leave. And the irregular ones are counted by UNHCR, which places a group of people armed with automatic counters at the northern border, on the Panamerican Highway. They look at the Venezuelans who arrive on foot, in buses and other means of transportation and count them, and they do something similar in the South, with those who leave. This is done on the Panamerican Highway, because Venezuelan migration occupies the main roads for their movement. And they are people who stay for months. Many continue on to Peru. Minister Vayas says that, since the Venezuelan migration crisis began, 1.9 million Venezuelans have passed through Ecuador.

To the figure of half a million permanent Venezuelans in the country must be added the transients, who stay to get some money to continue to Peru or Chile. And they may stay for months.

Ecuador will work with the official figure of 500 thousand and will regularize them in two stages. First there will be a census of foreigners, regular and irregular, which will be done by the Ministry of Government. The census and the regularization process is voluntary, but being registered is a requirement for regularization. And although regularization is important, says Vayas, the process of insertion in the socioeconomic system is more important. For those regularized, Ecuador will grant a temporary visa for two years.

Vayas Vladivieso argued that the Ecuadorian state "must know that these people are here and that they are regular. This means that they can produce in the country, that they are part of the socio-economic and social security system, with their respective contributions. A regularized Venezuelan citizen will have access to all rights, including labor rights, to avoid precariousness and labor exploitation. It is also important to know what profession Venezuelans have, what is their work experience and expertise, to enhance their contribution to the country".


The idea of the Chancellery is that if the regularized Venezuelan is going to start a business, he/she must have at least one Ecuadorian in that same production project. That way we avoid xenophobic outbreaks and boost employment," said Vayas. But a lot of money is needed for the regularization process and more for the insertion into Ecuadorian society, he added.

The representative of the International Organization for Migration, IOM, José Iván Dávalos, said at a meeting in Cuenca that Ecuador's host communities are, in reality, "welcoming communities". For Vayas, the key to integration is mutual knowledge and integration: first get to know the reality in which Venezuela lives and understand why Venezuelans have come to the country.

In January 2022 the first stage of regularization will begin. It is a voluntary process, but it is necessary to do so. It will be done through massive campaigns, but the "word of mouth" system will also be applied. A map prepared by UNHCR shows the updated number of Venezuelans in all provinces of the country. Thanks to this, the Chancellery knows in which part of the country all the Venezuelan communities are located.

A major risk

The Vice Minister of Human Mobility admits that the country has become a "hub" for illegal migration. There are many routes of people who enter the country illegally to leave for the north. This is the case of Haitians, and it is not possible to know how many enter, but it is known that few stay, says the official. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a figure of 350 Haitians residing in the country. The Haitian irregulars arrive through the Brazilian and Colombian routes. It is a responsibility of the Migration office of the Ministry of Government, but criminal gangs are on the Peruvian and Colombian side selling their "packages" and just to cross into Ecuador they charge a certain amount of money. They ask them to form groups of at least five people. A UNHCR program in Nuevo Rocafuerte and San Miguel receives the Ahitians, assists them and helps them to cross the border again.

The Vice Minister of Human Mobility, Ambassador Luis Vayas Valdivieso, in one of the halls of the Palace of Najas, headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Quito. Photo: Luis Argüello. PlanV

"We don't talk about legality or illegality in immigration issues. We talk about irregularity. Migration is not criminalized, but because it was like that before, that's where the citizen's fear comes from to approach the authorities. But we must fight criminal gangs, the coyotes are not a lifeline but the opposite: there is exploitation and human rights violations," said Vayas Valdivieso.

Associations of migrants who returned alive from the irregular migration route help authorities to warn of the risks.  There is an association of migrant women who returned from that journey through Mexico to the United States and it is specifically in charge of warning women who wish to migrate of the dangers they face. This association has in common that they survived the journey, but another tragedy unites them in their efforts: they were all raped.


Translated by Manuel Novik

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