10,000 Ecuadorian citizens are arriving in Mexico each month to attempt entry into U.S.; many falling victims to crime, some have gone missing
Ecuadorians have been leaving the country in large numbers during the past 20 years due to economic, political and crime woes. But that migration has accelerated “spectacularly” recently, with Mexico being their springboard to the United States, says an expert on migration from that region.
In 2020, at least 3,000 Ecuadorians flew to Mexico and did not return; that number has shot up this year to 10,000 per month, said William Murillo, director of New York City-based 1-800 Migrante, a legal services organization focusing on citizens from Ecuador and their families.
“Mexico in 2018 did away with visa requirements for Ecuadorians; anyone with a passport from Ecuador can enter freely. Since then, we have seen a spectacular increase in travel to Mexico with the intent” of staying to pursue the American dream, Murillo said.
Two factors are fueling the increase: a bad economy exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and a trend toward “family reunification” that has picked up since January.
“It’s parents who haven’t seen their children in many years and send for them or children who grow up and want to go with (a parent) in the United States,” Murillo said. “It’s also jobs, which are scarce in Ecuador, corruption, violence, crime and a bad COVID situation […].”
The East Coast of the United States is a common destination for these migrants and South Texas is the usual path to get there. However, the environment of lawlessness and fear over recent massacres in Tamaulipas have pushed this traffic to El Paso and Arizona.
Migrants from Ecuador are now the second-most apprehended nationality in the El Paso Sector of the Border Patrol, after citizens of Mexico. The agency says it has encountered 33,996 Ecuadorians this fiscal year in the region.
This transition has been far from seamless or safe. Ecuadorians have become targets of criminals and corrupt government officials the minute they step on a Mexico-bound airplane in their country, Murillo said.
Ecuadorians, a billion-dollar industry for smugglers, cartels
U.S. officials and some advocates say Ecuadorians pay between $12,000 to $18,000 to be smuggled into the United States. That equates to nearly $1 billion in smuggling fees paid this year alone.
Many migrants end up shelling out much more money during the trip north, Murillo said.
“Extortion and kidnapping begin at Mexican immigration checkpoints and even at the Mexico City airport. We’ve known of cases in which the travelers are taken from the (customs) line and led to a room. […] they are robbed and sometimes handed over to criminals – kidnappers – outside the facilities,” he said. “The ransom adds $2,000, $3,000, $5,000 to the cost of the trip.”
Murillo said the dangers for Ecuadorians are greater the closer they get to the United States.
“The border is worse. There is crime, corruption and criminals are in a constant dispute for territory. It’s a war zone,” he said. “They see migrants as an easy way to finance other illicit activities, they recruit men (as drug couriers) and women for prostitution.”
“There are bones, remains of Ecuadorians scattered along the desert and broken-hearted families with no news of their loved ones,” said Murillo.
Tamaulipas too dangerous for some migrants
Murillo said the “coyoteros,” the point-of-contact smugglers in Ecuador, are the ones now sending more people to El Paso and Arizona instead of South Texas because of the perceived danger in Tamaulipas, across the border.
“The great majority of Ecuadorians go with a coyotero. They are the ones who direct the (migration) flow. The traditional, most utilized route from Mexico into the U.S. is Matamoros-Brownsville, but they have seen many problems with (cartel) violence, murders, kidnappings. Now not just in Juarez, but many other border towns that saw little transit from Ecuador are now seeing a greater amount of them,” he said.
Still, 16 Ecuadorian citizens have gone missing in Mexico since Jan. 1. Only three have been located. One turned up in Juarez, one was in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the body of a third was identified in South Texas.
The fate of the other 13 remains unknown, but Murillo says things don’t look good.
“If they die on the way or stay somewhere else, this is usually passed on by a friend or travel companion or (the smuggler),” he said. “What worries us are the forced disappearances: armed men arriving at a safe house and taking some people away, or armed men in vehicles intercepting migrants about to cross (the border). Those kinds of things because sometimes you never hear from them again.” The group has stories and photos about missing Ecuadorians on its web page 1800migrante.com.
Six times as many Ecuadorians caught at border in 2021
According to US Customs and Border Protection, 71,945 encounters with Ecuadorian migrants have been recorded nationwide through July for fiscal 2021. Most occurred along the southwest border, much of which runs along Texas. In all of fiscal 2020, CBP recorded 12,892 encounters.
“We’re witnessing the third wave of mass migration” to the U.S., said Soledad Alvarez Velasco, a specialist on Ecuadorian migration via Mexico at the University of Houston, noting there were previous waves in the 1980s. Those were followed by an exodus to Europe, mostly to Italy and Spain.
“People today are leaving the country in big numbers because the conditions in Ecuador are dire,” she said.
Around the world, people were moved by images of bodies being left in the streets in Guayaquil as the burial system was overwhelmed by coronavirus in April 2020. And although the nation is making headway in its vaccination efforts with 56% of 17.8 million Ecuadorians now at least partially vaccinated, over the past 18 months Ecuador has had almost 32,000 COVID-19 deaths, Ecuador’s Ministry of Public Health says.
Most Ecuadorian migrants are looking for work after the pandemic left them unemployed or cut off their main sources of income. Ecuador’s Ministry of Labor reported more than 700,000 jobs were lost between March 2020 and March 2021, and just over half have been recovered.
According to Ecuador’s National Institute of Statistics and Census, unemployment was at 6.3% in May.
Mexico installs new requirements to stop illegal Ecuadorian flow into US
Mexico announced on Sunday that it is establishing new rules for Ecuadorians arriving in the country by air. According to sources in Ecuador’s Mexican embassy, the requirements were developed jointly by the Mexican government, the Ecuadorian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and U.S. immigration services.
Under the new rules, Ecuadorians arriving at Mexican airports must present:
- A pre-paid printed copy of a return ticket (cell phone screen shots not allowed).
- Proof of payment for accommodation (no cell phone screenshot) or
- A letter of invitation signed by the person who offers temporary residency to the applicant (with a copy of the identity document of said person and contact information)
- Proof of sufficient financial resources for the visit to Mexico
According to the Mexico City embassy source, Ecuador believes the rules are necessary to reduce the flow of Ecuadorians attempting to enter the U.S. without visas, most of them through the Mexican-U.S. border.
Airport migration officers in Quito and Guayaquil are now asking those traveling on an Ecuadorian passport to Mexico to show the documents required on arrival. “We want to save travelers that are unaware of the new requirements the cost of being sent back to Ecuador,” the foreign affairs ministry said Sunday in a statement on its website.
According to airport departure records, 88,000 Ecuadorians have flown to Mexico in the first half of 2021, a 60 percent increase over the same period in 2019, prior to the Covid pandemic.