The arrest of an alleged cousin of Osama bin Laden, accused of running a human trafficking ring in Ecuador, is another sign of how lax visa policies have fed the growth of such smuggling networks.
Besides claims in Ecuadorean and Colombian media, there is little evidence that Eritrean national Yaee Dawit Tadese, alias "Jack Flora," is indeed part of the extended bin Laden family.
Tadese was reportedly arrested March 10 during a raid in Quito, in a joint operation by Ecuadorean police and Colombia's elite anti-kidnapping squad, known as GAULA.
According to Guayaquil-based newspaper El Universal, the arrest of Tadese and 66 other nationals from Asia, Africa and the Middle East was part of an investigation into a human smuggling ring. Tadese was reportedly deported to the U.S. on March 12, as he was wanted by Interpol on terrorism, drug and human trafficking charges.
Colombian police told El Tiempo that Tadese managed a network that trafficked migrants from Africa, using two popular routes running from Somalia to either Ecuador or Venezuela.
Regardless of Tadese's alleged family ties, the arrest is a reminder of how much human trafficking has expanded in Ecuador since 2008. That was the year that Ecuador waived visa requirements for almost every country in the world, allowing visitors to enter the country and automatically gain a 90-day pass.
As a result, Ecuador has seen the growth of Colombian, Russian and Chinese organized crime groups operating within its borders. This includes smugglers moving human cargo from Ecuador to Central America, then onwards to the United States. As noted by El Comercio, migration police have seen an explosion of African and Asian nationals moving through the country, with 156 reported arrivals from South Africa during the first quarter of 2011.
A 2009 report by the International Assessment and Strategy Center found that Ecuador's lax visa policies may have also increased the smuggling of Asian and African migrants from the Andean nation to the U.S. The report quotes one unnamed U.S. official who maintains that, "In every major case of non?Mexican and non?Central American illegal immigrants entering the United States in the past year the migrants have transited Ecuador."
In August 2010, concerns about human trafficking arose after an Ecuadorean citizen was one of two survivors of the brutal slaughter of 72 migrants by the Zetas in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Shortly afterwards, Ecuador created visa requirements for nine countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan and Somalia.
Migration from these countries saw huge boosts after Ecuador suspended visa requirements in 2008. Ecuador registered only 11 migrants from Bangladesh in 2007, which soared to close to 300 visitors in 2010, according to migration police.
The pegging of Yaee Dawit Tadese as a member of the bin Laden family also speaks to a concern sometimes voice by analysts and political commentators: that Asian and Middle Eastern terrorist networks are using Latin America as a refuge. While Hezbollah activity at the border between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay has been well documented, there otherwise have been no reported cases of groups like al-Qaida succesfully using Latin America as an entry point into the United States.
That Tadese was reportedly deported to U.S. on terrorism charges, along with four other men of Pakistani origin, will likely do much to feed these concerns.