Smuggling Route Goes Through Ecuador To U.S.

Last June, Ecuador's president tried to turn his belief that borders should be open into reality. He announced that anyone from anywhere could visit Ecuador without a visa. Overnight, Chinese began arriving by the dozens. They apparently were hoping to use Ecuador as a springboard to the United States by tapping into the nation's vast human-smuggling business.

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Farther south, Ecuador is facing a different kind of border problem. This one, though, involves migration, people coming into the country. Last June, Ecuador's government eliminated visa requirements for all foreigners. In-migration skyrocketed, especially from China.

The Chinese migrants were tapping into Ecuador's vast network of underground human smuggling in hopes of reaching the U.S., and that caught many in the government by surprise. Sean Bowditch has the story from Ecuador's capital, Quito.

SEAN BOWDITCH: Mariscal Sucre Airport is Ecuador's busiest. It sits in the heart of one of Quito's most densely populated neighborhoods. Planes appear to scrape the rooftops as they come in for landing.

(Soundbite of airplane)

BOWDITCH: Near the main terminal, Major Roberto Moreno(ph) sits in a sparsely decorated office. He's in charge of immigration at the airport. In the last six months, his job has become, in his words, very complicated.

Major Roberto Moreno (Immigration Official, Quito, Ecuador): (Through translator) Starting January 20, the president declared that no one from anywhere in the world needed a visa to enter Ecuador.

BOWDITCH: The new law, a first for South America, permits any foreigner to stay in the country for up to 90 days. Aside from the goal of spurring tourism, the move was symbolic. President Rafael Correa believes that freedom of movement is a basic human right.

Then something unexpected happened. The next day, Chinese nationals began arriving by the dozens. Again, Major Moreno.

Major MORENO: (Through translator) When they needed a visa to come into Ecuador, the average plane flight might have had two or three Chinese passengers on it, no more than that. But now, after January 20, we've had 30 Chinese passengers on just one flight alone.

BOWDITCH: But it wasn't until the Chinese tried to leave Ecuador that problems arose. To get to the next transit country without attracting suspicion, many used fake passports with forged visas, all produced by criminal networks in Ecuador.

By December, nearly 12,000 Chinese had entered the country, a six-fold increase over the first half of the year. That prompted President Correa to revise the policy. Chinese citizens are now required to use a licensed tour operator and provide documentation of their trip.

But the problem hasn't completely gone away. Of the 12,000 Chinese in question, less than half have officially exited the country. Immigration authorities say many have already left via illicit sea and land routes, but there is evidence that others are in hiding, waiting for the green light from smugglers.

Not far from the airport, Pedro Sampisano(ph) stands in an empty holding cell at a migrant detention facility. He's the chief of migration for Pichincha Province. The majority of the people detained here are arrested on the street or during raids, all for immigration infractions. He says most are Colombian and Peruvian migrants.

Mr. PEDRO SAMPISANO (Chief of Migration, Pichincha Province, Ecuador): (Through translator) But lately, we've had Chinese citizens in particular detained here.

BOWDITCH: That trend continues. A few weeks ago, seven Chinese were held here. Human smuggling is big business. For smugglers, the new route has been very lucrative. Criminal networks in China and Latin America have conservatively taken in tens of millions of dollars in a matter of months.

Ambassador ALFONSO LOPEZ(ph) (Undersecretary of Consular Affairs, Ecuador): That was a surprise.

BOWDITCH: That's Ambassador Alfonso Lopez, undersecretary of consular affairs. He says the government underestimated the smuggling networks.

Amb. LOPEZ: This is a business. These mafias are always trying to look the kind of holes can they find in the structure that you have.

BOWDITCH: An American official with knowledge of the situation says the U.S. remains concerned, adding that the issue is a priority for immigration authorities.

Looking ahead, sociologist Giaconda Herrera says Ecuadorian policy-makers must address the country's dual status as both a sender and a receiver of migrants. She says on the one hand, Ecuador wants to protect its emigrants in Europe and the U.S.

Ms. GIACONDA HERRERA (Sociologist, Latin American Institute of Social Sciences): But on the other hand, we are very reluctant to do the same thing with the Chinese, Colombian, Peruvian, coming out to our territory. This is one of the contradictions that the Ecuadorian government has to solve.

BOWDITCH: Herrera is a migration expert at Quito's Latin American Institute of Social Sciences. She says closing the border in reaction to criminal activity solves nothing. So for now, Ecuador is resolved to keep its doors open to the world and work out the kinks along the way. For NPR News, I'm Sean Bowditch in Quito, Ecuador.

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