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Latin American Smugglers Are Now Trafficking Asylum Seekers From Across the Globe

Migrants from across Asia and Africa are crossing oceans to travel perilous routes in Latin America toward the U.S. and Canada.
An illegal migrant in the Libyan city of Benghazi.

An illegal migrant in the Libyan city of Benghazi.

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​ ​United States and ​Canada.​

Migrants​ ​from​ ​Ghana,​ ​Cameroon,​ ​Senegal,​ ​Syria,​ ​and​ ​Afghanistan​ ​said​ ​they​ ​had​ ​traveled​ ​tens​ ​of thousands​ ​of​ ​miles,​ ​crisscrossing​ ​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​ ​road-less​ ​forest​ ​on​ ​the​ ​border with​ ​Panama​ ​that​ ​was,​ ​until​ ​recently,​ ​partially​ ​controlled​ ​by​ ​the​ ​Revolutionary​ ​Armed​ ​Forces​ ​of Colombia.

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​ ​"extra-continental"​ ​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."

Thania 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 non-continentals,​ ​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 "extra-regional"​ ​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,"​​ ​Rudas says.

The​ ​United Nations'​ ​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​ ​extra-continentals. 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 article originally appeared on Refugees Deeply. You can find the original here. For more in-depth coverage of the global refugee crisis, you can sign up to the Refugees Deeply email list.