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.
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 migrants 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.￼