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The New Coyote Trail: Refugees Head West to Bypass Fortress Europe

Europe’s closing borders and the death toll in the Mediterranean are forcing asylum seekers to look further afield. An investigation into the migration routes out of Latin America into the U.S. and Canada finds Africans, Afghans and Iraqis enduring great risks.

Written by Laura Dixon, Pedro​ ​Noel, ​Andrea​ ​Arzaba, Sally​ ​Hayden, ​Mauro​ ​Pimentel, Selase​ ​Kove-Seyram Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
PENAS BLANCAS - SEPTEMBER 18: A discarded mattress sits on the Pan American Highway in the border town of Petas Blancas. Thousands of migrants from Africa and Haiti attempt a harrowing walk across the Darien Gap connecting Colombia and Panama. Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Abdul​ ​Majeed​ ​was​ ​5,000​ ​miles​ ​and​ ​an​ ​ocean​ ​away​ ​from​ ​his​ ​home​ ​in​ ​Ghana​ ​when​ ​he​ ​crossed​ ​the Darien​ ​Gap,​ ​the​ ​jungle​ ​border​ ​that​ ​lies​ ​between​ ​Colombia​ ​and​ ​Panama.​ ​With​ ​him​ ​were​ ​scores​ ​of other​ ​migrants.​ ​“Somalis,​ ​Indians,​ ​Senegalese,​ ​Nepalese,​ ​Ghanaians,​ ​Bangladeshis,​ ​Cubans,​ ​Haitians and​ ​Nigerians,”​ ​he​ ​recalled.​

​​Although​ ​the​ ​group​ ​was​ ​mostly​ ​made​ ​up​ ​of​ ​men​ ​and​ ​women​ ​in​ ​their​ ​20s and​ ​30s,​ ​some​ ​had​ ​brought​ ​their​ ​children​ ​with​ ​them.​ ​​Their​ ​“guide”​ ​pointed​ ​to​ ​a​ ​path​ ​through​ ​the jungle.​ ​“Keep​ ​going​ ​this​ ​way.​ ​It’s​ ​not​ ​very​ ​far,”​ ​he​ ​told​ ​them.

What​ ​followed​ ​was​ ​a​ ​weeklong​ ​trek​ ​through​ ​the​ ​dense​ ​unknown,​ ​every​ ​step​ ​marked​ ​by​ ​fear​ ​in​ ​an untamed​ ​jungle​ ​home​ ​to​ ​wild​ ​animals,​ ​armed​ ​drug​ ​traffickers​ ​and​ ​people​ ​smugglers.

Instead​ ​of​ ​heading​ ​north​ ​to​ ​Europe,​ ​where​ ​the​ ​crisis​ ​at​ ​sea​ ​has​ ​led​ ​to​​ ​​thousands​​ ​of​ ​deaths​ ​in​ ​the Mediterranean,​ ​a​ ​number​ ​of​ ​migrants​ ​like​ ​Majeed​ ​are​ ​now​ ​choosing​ ​to fly ​across​ ​the Atlantic​​ on ​​a ​​route ​​that ​​goes ​​first​ ​to ​​Latin ​​America and ​​then north through​​ Mexico to​ ​the​ ​U.S. and ​Canada.​ ​

Migrants​ ​from​ ​Ghana,​ ​Cameroon,​ ​Senegal,​ ​Syria​ ​and​ ​Afghanistan​ ​said​ ​they​ ​had​ ​traveled​ ​tens​ ​of thousands​ ​of​ ​miles,​ ​criss-crossing​ ​continents​ ​and​ ​sometimes​ ​trekking​ ​through​ ​jungles​ ​and​ ​over valleys ​to​ ​reach​ ​their​ ​destinations.

“I​ ​saw​ ​people​ ​dying​ ​on​ ​the​ ​road,”​ ​said​ ​Carol,​ ​a​ ​40-year-old​ ​migrant​ ​who​ ​had​ ​traveled​ ​from​ ​Ghana​ ​to the​ ​northern​ ​Mexican​ ​border​ ​town​ ​of​ ​Tijuana.​​​​​​​​ “Some​ ​were​ ​drowning​ ​in​ ​rivers;​ ​some​ ​fell from​ ​the​ ​high​ ​mountains.​ ​Just​ ​getting​ ​to​ ​Panama​ ​was​ ​not​ ​easy​ ​at​ ​all.”

Ecuador: A ‘Trampoline to Reach the U.S.

Like​ ​many​ ​migrants,​ ​Carol​ ​had​ ​taken​ ​advantage​ ​of​ ​Ecuador’s​ ​liberal​ ​visa​ ​system​ ​to​ ​fly​ ​into​ ​Quito.​ ​She then​ ​traveled​ ​overland​ ​through​ ​Colombia​ ​and​ ​the​ ​Darien​ ​Gap,​ ​the​ ​roadless​ ​forest​ ​on​ ​the​ ​border with​ ​Panama​ ​that​ ​was,​ ​until​ ​recently,​ ​partially​ ​controlled​ ​by​ ​the​ ​Revolutionary​ ​Armed​ ​Forces​ ​of Colombia​ ​(FARC).

In​ ​2008,​ ​Ecuador​ ​passed​ ​a​ ​new​ ​constitution​ ​that​ ​created​ ​an​ ​“open​ ​door”​ ​policy​ ​for​ ​all​ ​foreign​ ​visitors. No one​ ​needed​ ​a​ ​visa​ ​to​ ​enter,​ ​turning​ ​Ecuador​ ​into​ ​a​ ​key​ ​destination​ ​for​ ​people​ ​who​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​travel​ ​to​ ​or​ ​through​ ​the​ ​Americas. Although​ ​visa​ ​requirements​ ​were​ ​soon​ ​​reinstated​ by Ecuador ​for​ ​some​ ​countries​​ ​(Afghanistan,​ ​Bangladesh,​ ​Eritrea, Ethiopia,​ ​Kenya,​ ​Nepal,​ ​Nigeria,​ ​Pakistan,​ ​Somalia)​, ​Ecuador​ ​remains​ ​one​ ​of​ ​the​ ​most​ ​liberal​ ​countries​ ​in the​ ​world​ ​in​ ​terms​ ​of​ ​visa​ ​requirements.

Giovanna​ ​​Tipán​ ​Barrera​,​ ​the​ ​director​ ​of​ ​the​ ​human​ ​mobility​ ​department​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Pichincha​ ​region​ ​that incorporates​ ​the​ ​capital,​ ​Quito,​ ​says​ ​so​ ​many​ ​“extracontinental”​ ​migrants​ ​have​ ​arrived​ ​in​ ​recent​ ​years that​ ​they​ ​are​ ​now​ ​running​ ​Spanish​ ​classes​ ​for​ ​Arabic​ ​speakers​ ​and​ ​other​ ​communities.

Although​ ​some​ ​of​ ​the​ ​people​ ​they​ ​work​ ​with​ ​will​ ​stay​ ​in Ecuador,​ ​she​ ​says​ ​others​ ​are​ ​“using​ ​Ecuador​ ​as​ ​a trampoline​ ​to​ ​reach​ ​the​ ​U.S.”​ ​

What​ ​concerns​ ​her​ ​is​ ​that​ ​the​ ​passage​ ​north​ ​can​ ​be​ ​just​ ​as​ ​perilous​ ​as​ ​any boat​ ​crossing:​ ​Trekking​ ​through​ ​Colombia’s​ ​Darien​ ​Gap​ ​jungle​ ​is​ ​“suicide,”​ ​she​ ​says,​ ​with​ ​crime​ ​and guerrilla​ ​groups​ ​known​ ​for​ ​extorting​ ​migrants.​ ​The​ ​fees​ ​are​ ​also​ ​considerable:​ ​$10,000​ ​to​ ​$20,000​ ​to travel​ ​from​ ​Ecuador​ ​to​ ​the​ ​U.S.​ ​by​ ​land.

Peter Rotimi Oye, nigerian pastor and English teacher, prays with friends in downtown Quito, Ecuador, on 18 June of 2017. Peter and his family has been settled in Ecuador and plan to live there as much as possible. (Mauro Pimentel)

Dr​. ​Thania​ ​Moreno​ ​Romero,​ ​the​ ​chief​ ​prosecutor​ ​for​ ​the​ ​Pichincha​ ​region,​ ​says​ ​there​ ​has​ ​always​ ​been​ ​a route​ ​north​ ​from​ ​Ecuador​ ​to​ ​the​ ​U.S.​ ​and​ ​Canada,​ ​only​ ​migration​ ​from​ ​here​ ​was​ ​“a​ ​local​ ​phenomenon.”

“But​ ​since​ ​2008​, ​when​ ​we​ ​introduced​ ​freedom​ ​of​ ​movement,​ ​we​ ​started​ ​to​ ​see​ ​people​ ​from Pakistan,​ ​​India and​ ​Afghanistan​ ​coming​ ​to​ ​our​ ​country.​ ​From​ ​here​ ​they​ ​continue​ ​the​ ​route​ ​by​ ​land through​ ​Central​ ​America.”

Oye​ ​Rotimi​ ​Peter,​ ​a​ ​Nigerian​ ​pastor​ ​and​ ​English​ ​teacher,​ ​has​ ​been​ ​in​ ​Ecuador​ ​for​ ​a​ ​number​ ​of​ ​years​ ​but says​ ​many​ ​of​ ​his​ ​congregation​ ​from​ ​Nigeria,​ ​Cameroon,​ ​Ghana,​ ​and​ ​Haiti​ ​are​ ​just​ ​“passing​ ​through.”

“They​ ​come​ ​to​ ​Ecuador​ ​for​, ​say​, ​one​ ​year,​ ​two​ ​years,​ ​get​ ​some​ ​money​ ​for​ ​the​ ​next​ ​ticket​, ​and​ ​they​ ​go. Most​ ​of​ ​them​ go ​to​ ​North​ ​America​ ​or​ ​Canada,”​ ​he​ ​says.​

The Coyote Business Goes Global

According to an Ecuadorian government official, the​ ​coyotes​ ​are a​ ​well-connected​ ​network​ ​of​ ​smugglers​ ​that​ ​operate​ ​between​ ​countries​. They are​ ​highly flexible​ ​and​ ​just​ ​change​ ​routes​ ​when​ ​they​ ​get​ ​rumbled,​ ​taking​ ​people​ ​instead​ ​on​ trucks​ ​or​ ​buses​ north​ ​to​ ​the​ ​Darien,​ ​she​ ​said.

Hermel​ ​Mendoza​ ​from​ ​the​ ​Scalabriani​ ​Mission​ ​compares it​ ​to​ ​a​ ​“transnational​ ​business”​ ​that​ ​brings​ ​huge​ ​profits: “​Gangs​ ​had​ ​experience​ ​of​ ​transiting​ ​people​ ​​in​ ​the​ ​past​ ​from​ ​Ecuador​ ​to​ ​Europe​ ​and​ ​Africa.​ ​From​ ​there they​ ​started​ ​to​ ​build​ ​a​ ​network​ ​of​ ​traffickers​ ​from​ ​all​ ​these​ ​countries.​ ​Those​ ​same​ ​networks​ ​are​ ​now used​ ​by​ ​the​ ​coyotes​ ​to​ ​bring​ ​people​ ​here,”​ ​he​ ​says.

Soledad​ ​Alvarez,​ ​an​ ​academic​ ​who​ ​writes​ ​about​ ​​”Coyoterismo”​​ ​and​ ​Ecuador’s​ ​position​ ​in​ ​this international​ ​trade​ ​of​ ​peoples,​ says ​​the​ ​role​ ​of​ ​the​ ​coyote​ ​has​ ​changed​ ​from​ ​someone​ ​who​ ​was well-known​ ​in​ ​small​ ​towns​ ​for​ ​helping​ ​people​ ​they​ ​knew​ ​trek​ ​north,​ ​to​ ​one​ ​that​ ​has​ “increasingly​ ​been incorporated​ ​to​ ​broader​ ​transnational​ ​smuggling​ ​networks.”

“With​ ​so​ ​many​ ​controls,​ ​​coyotes​​ ​work​ ​as​ ​in​ ​a​ ​relay​​ race:​ ​from​ ​here​ ​to​ ​Colombia,​ ​one​ ​coyote,​ ​then another​ ​and​ it goes on,” she wrote in a recent paper. “Via mobile phones, Ecuadorean coyotes are connected with foreign coyotes along the route. They exchange information and coordinate payments via Western union or Money Gram for the different stretches of the route.”

Dr Moreno, whose office is trying to target organized crime and people-trafficking rings, says that for smugglers used to carrying contraband, the smuggling of human cargo is “just another phenomenon for them,” but ending up with these groups leaves the migrants themselves highly vulnerable.

She​ ​says​ ​there​ ​was​ ​until​ ​recently​ ​a​ ​large​ ​operation​ ​in​ ​Bolivia​ ​providing​ ​false​ ​documents​ ​for​ ​a​ ​fee​, principally​ ​Bolivian​ ​and​ ​Venezuelan​ ​passports​ ​that​ ​would​ ​make​ ​travel​ ​through​ ​South​ ​America​ ​easier​ ​for noncontinentals,​ ​and ​they​ ​have​ ​also​ ​seen​ ​evidence​ ​of​ ​fake​ ​documents​ ​being​ ​made​ ​in​ ​Brazil.

The​ ​impact​ ​of​ ​this​ ​trade​ ​in​ ​people​ ​has​ ​also​ ​been​ ​felt​ ​in​ ​Colombia.​ ​In​ ​August​ ​last​ ​year, a​ ​bus​ ​filled​ ​with​ ​migrants​ ​from​ ​Congo​ ​and​ ​Angola​ ​was​ ​stopped​ ​traveling​ ​from​ ​Cali​ ​in​ ​the​ ​south​ ​of​ ​the country​ ​to​ ​Medellin,​ in the ​north.​ ​

Earlier​ ​that​ ​year,​ ​the Colombian​ ​navy​ ​rescued​ ​53​ ​migrants​ ​from​ ​​Somalia, Mali,​ ​Pakistan,​ ​Bangladesh,​ ​Haiti​ ​and​ ​Cuba​ ​who​ ​had​ ​been​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​reach​ ​the​ ​border​ ​with​ ​Panama​ ​when their​ ​boat​ ​started​ ​to​ ​sink.​ ​That​ ​same​ ​year,​ ​the​ ​Colombian​ ​migration​ ​authorities​ ​deported​ ​3,700​ ​migrants with​ ​irregular​ ​papers​ ​from​ ​Colombia’s​ ​northern​ ​border​ ​port​ ​of​ ​Turbo.

But​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​track​ ​these​ ​smugglers​ ​down​ ​is​ ​a​ ​never-ending​ ​process:​ ​When​ ​one​ ​route​ ​or​ ​operation​ ​is​ ​shut down,​ ​experts​ ​say,​ ​another​ ​jungle​ ​path​ ​is opened​ ​up by​ ​a​ ​rival​ ​to​ ​take​ ​its​ ​place.​ ​

Traveling​ ​between​ ​Ecuador​ ​and​ ​Colombia ​is​ ​often​ ​as​ ​easy​ ​as​ ​walking​ ​across​ ​the​ ​border,​ said an Ecuadorian government official. ​When​ ​border​ ​checks​ ​are​ ​carried​ ​out​, ​there​ ​are​ ​as​ ​many​ ​as​ ​33​ ​informal​ ​crossings​ ​that​ ​people​ ​can​ ​use.

Dr​ ​Ernesto​ ​Pazmiño,​ ​Ecuador’s​ ​chief​ ​public​ ​defender, ​places​ ​some​ ​of​ ​the​ ​blame​ ​of​ ​this​ ​trade​ ​at​ ​Europe’s​ ​door:​ ​“It​ ​is​ ​evidence​ ​of​ ​the​ ​restrictions​ ​European countries​ ​put​ ​in​ ​place​ ​that​ ​people​ ​that​ ​want​ ​to​ ​go​ ​to​ ​the​ ​U.S.​ ​find​ ​other​ ​routes,​ ​principally​ ​through​ ​Latin America,”​ ​he​ ​says.​ ​

“So​ ​the​ ​increase​ ​in​ ​people​ ​trafficking​ ​is​ ​due​ ​to​ ​the​ ​migration​ ​policies​ ​of​ ​rich​ ​countries. More​ ​borders​ ​leads​ ​to​ ​more​ ​illegal​ ​crossings,​ ​people​ ​have​ ​to​ ​pay​ ​more​ ​money,” ​Pazmiño said. ​”These​ ​are​ ​human beings,​ ​but​ ​countries​ ​close​ ​their​ ​doors​.”

Old Routes, New Human Cargo

Panama’s​ ​migration​ ​authorities​ ​run​ ​a​ ​shelter​ ​on​ ​the​ ​other​ ​side​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Darien​ ​Gap,​ ​for​ ​the​ ​migrants, many​ ​desperate​ ​and​ ​sick,​ ​who​ ​make​ ​it​ ​across.​ ​Somalis,​ ​Congolese,​ ​Ghanaians,​ ​Asians​ ​of​ ​different nationalities,​ ​including​ ​Nepalese,​ ​are​ ​among​ ​the​ ​migrant​s who have ​recently​ ​occupied​ ​the​ ​shelter.​ ​

Javier Rudas,​ ​a​ Panamanian ​government​ ​representative​, ​said that in 2016​, ​authorities​ ​saw​ ​22,000 “extraregional”​ ​migrants​ ​cross​ ​the​ ​border​ ​into​ ​Panama.​ Figures​ ​show​ ​the​ ​total​ ​number​ ​of people​ ​crossing​ ​the​ ​Colombia-Panama​ ​border increased​ ​from​ ​2,000​ ​in​ ​2013​ ​to​ ​30,000​ ​last year​.​ ​“We​ ​are​ ​a​ ​transit​ ​country,​ ​straddling​ ​the​ ​north​ ​and​ ​the​ ​south.​ ​We​ ​try​ ​to​ ​help,”​ ​says​ ​Rudas.

The​ ​U.N.’s​ ​refugee​ ​agency ​acknowledges​ ​this​ ​new​ ​dynamic​ ​in​ ​international​ ​migration, noting​ ​in​ ​2011​ ​that​ ​“the​ ​region​ ​is​ ​receiving​ ​an​ ​increasing​ ​number​ ​of​ ​asylum seekers,​ ​often​ ​mixed with​ ​economic​ ​migrants,​ ​particularly​ ​from​ ​the​ ​Horn​ ​of​ ​Africa​ ​and​ ​the​ ​Middle​ ​East.”

Tipán​ ​Barrera said​ ​that​ ​while​ ​many migrants arrive​ ​with​ ​nothing,​ ​others​ ​are​ ​“middle,​ ​upper​ ​class”​ ​​and​ ​end​ ​up​ ​here​ ​because​ ​“they​ ​do​ ​not​ ​want​ ​to take​ ​the​ ​boat”​ ​to​ ​Europe.​ ​Middle​ ​class​ ​or​ ​poor,​ ​the​ ​refugees​ ​and​ ​migrants​ ​must​ ​come​ ​up​ ​with between​ ​$10,000​ ​to​ ​$20,000​ ​to​ ​travel​ ​from​ ​Ecuador​ ​to​ ​the​ ​U.S.,​ ​mostly​ ​by​ ​land,​ ​Tipán​ ​Barrera​ ​said.

The​ ​U.N.​ ​Office​ ​on​ ​Drugs​ ​and​ ​Crime,​ ​which​ ​monitors​ ​human​ ​trafficking​ ​and​ ​migrant​ ​smuggling, estimates​ ​that criminals​ ​make​ ​around​ ​$6.75​ ​billion​ ​a​ ​year​ ​from​ ​the people-smuggling ​trade.

Pedro​ ​Piedrahita​ ​Bustamente,​ ​an​ ​academic​ ​in​ ​Colombia’s​ ​second​ ​city​, ​Medellin,​ ​and​ ​an​ ​expert​ ​on international​ ​organized​ ​crime,​ ​said​ ​Latin​ ​American​ ​smugglers​ ​are​ ​traveling​ ​​​the​ ​same​ ​clandestine routes​ ​once​ ​used​ ​to​ ​ferry​ ​gold,​ ​drugs​ ​and​ ​arms.​ ​The​ ​routes​ ​became​ ​popular​ ​first​ ​with​ ​local​ ​migrants, then​ ​with​ ​extracontinentals. Just​ ​in​ ​Colombia​, Bustamante estimates​ ​that​ ​this​ ​trade​ ​brings​ ​in​ ​$5​ ​million​ ​a​ ​year.

“And​ ​it’s​ ​in​ ​this​ ​context​ ​that​ ​we​ ​see​ ​the​ ​appearance​ ​of​ ​transnational​ ​organized​ ​crime​ ​…​ ​groups specializing​ ​in​ ​the​ ​trafficking​ ​of​ ​people,​ ​the​ ​loaning​ ​out​ ​of​ ​transport​ ​to​ ​smugglers,​ ​and​ ​those​ ​that create​ ​fake​ ​documentation,”​ ​he​ ​said.

Mauricio​ ​Burbano,​ ​the​ ​deputy​ ​director​ ​at​ ​the​ ​Jesuits​ ​Migrant​ ​Mission​ ​in​ Quito ​and​ ​a​ ​professor​ ​at Ecuador’s​ ​Pontificia​ ​Universidad​ ​Catolica,​ ​says​ ​migrants​ ​often​ ​end​ ​up​ ​in​ ​love-hate​ ​relationships​ ​with the​ ​coyotes:​ ​While​ ​it’s​ ​clear​ ​that​ ​there’s​ ​organized​ ​crime​ ​involved​ ​in​ ​smuggling​ ​and​ ​trafficking, without​ ​them,​ ​the​ ​migrants​ ​wouldn’t​ ​be​ ​able​ ​to​ ​make​ ​this​ ​journey.​ ​“They​ ​are​ ​someone​ ​they need​ ​who​ ​offer ​help,”​ ​he​ ​says.

One​ ​Somali​ ​migrant​ ​who​ ​made​ ​it​ ​to​ ​the​ ​U.S.-Mexico​ ​border​ ​said​ ​the​ ​smugglers​ ​he​ ​met​ ​had​ ​his photograph​ ​so​ ​they​ ​would​ ​know​ ​they​ ​could​ ​trust​ ​him,​ ​and​ ​charged​ ​him​ ​fees​ ​only​ ​to​ ​cover​ ​each​ ​step of​ ​the​ ​journey.​ ​Another​ ​migrant​ ​said​ ​that​ ​he​ ​was​ ​offered​ ​a​ ​“package”​ ​to​ ​reach​ ​the​ ​U.S.​ ​from​ ​​Quito,​ ​for​ ​a​ ​total​ ​sum​ ​of​ ​$10,000​ ​for​ ​him​ ​and​ ​his​ ​daughter.

The​ ​sums​ ​are​ ​huge,​ ​and​ ​the​ ​lengths​ ​migrants​ ​will​ ​go​ ​to​ ​reach​ ​their​ ​destination​ ​often​ ​extreme.​ ​The problem​ ​with​ ​that​ ​on​ ​the​ ​journey​ via Latin America,​ ​as​ ​in​ ​the​ ​journey​ ​to​ ​Europe,​ ​is​ ​that​ ​it​ ​empowers​ ​those willing​ ​to​ ​offer​ ​passage​ ​for​ ​a​ ​price,​ ​however​ ​dangerous​ ​it​ ​might​ ​be.

As one smuggler in Niger put it: “What​ ​they​ ​are​ ​calling​ ​human​ ​smuggling​ ​is​ ​business.”​

This story is part of a global project on corruption and migration produced by 100Reporters, a Washington, D.C.-based investigative journalism nonprofit, and Journalists For Transparency, a global collective of reporters organized by Transparency International.

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