Ecuadorian children are leaving, by the dozens, for the United States. They don't carry visas and they pack light.
There are people -- known as "coyoteros" in Ecuador or "polleros" in Mexico -- that charge them for the journey. Up to $20,000 each. The children's parents want them in the United States and are ready to pay, even if it means their children will go through the worst experience of their short lives. Sometimes the children are unable to make it and turn back; others die on the road, without ever seeing their families.
In the United States, the thousands of unaccompanied children crossing the border -- an estimated 90,000 by the end of 2014, according to the Department of National Security -- is considered a humanitarian crisis. The phenomenon has prompted intense meetings amongst the top government officials of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, where the majority of these children come from. Head of the UN General Assembly Ban Ki-Moon, US President Barack Obama and his Mexican counterpart President Enrique Peña Nieto, also addressed the issue during a meeting at the Vatican. They said they were all looking for solutions.
But in Ecuador, no top officials have said a word. Yes, they've all spoken about the case of Nohemi Alvarez Quillay, the 12-year old girl who died in a Mexican shelter after being unable to cross the border through Juarez. They've initiated several investigations, and the vice minister of foreign affairs, Maria Landazuri, has traveled to Mexico to "demand" clarification about the death that happened March 11, 2014. Officials have expressed their sympathy and their regret. This includes President Rafael Correa, who, while traveling to New York in 2014, embraced the child's parents, who live there illegally and -- like so many others -- put their child in the mouth of a wolf.
But when it comes to the other children who leave Ecuador -- and there are many -- they say nothing. The law doesn't even investigate these cases, as indicated by the district attorney of Cañar state, Romeo Garate. He said he would investigate Nohemi's death "only if" he remembered.
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Honduras, launchpad towards the American Dream
Since visas were eliminated between Honduras and Ecuador, no-return trips have skyrocketed. Between 2007 and 2013, 992 children have gone missing after flying from Ecuador to Honduras. La Historia obtained migration statistics from the National Archives, comparing international entries and exits. A total of 1,286 children, between zero and 14 years old, traveled to Honduras during this period, but only 294 returned. The figures increase for adolescents between 15 and 19: over 5,000 have not returned from Honduras.
But for every child, 20 adults leave. In the same period, over 21,000 travelers older than 20 left Ecuador for good. The removal of visa requirements was to "primarily promote bilateral tourism," according to the Foreign Ministry at the time, but of the more than 27,000 Ecuadorians who did not return from Honduras between 2007 and 2013, over 22,000 said they were leaving on tourist trips.
"We must create laws to prevent this situation from continuing, because it is in that area, not the judicial area, where the state should should create a more direct policy to solve this," said Romeo Garate, the prosecutor.
Garate admits that the migration of children leaving to reunite with their parents has increased in the past three years. Honduras is just one of many routes used by trafficking networks to move Ecuadorians to the US-Mexico border. They also pass through Colombia, as was the case with Nohemi Alvarez and her two brothers, aged 14 and 16 years and originally from Cañar, who were found to be staying illegally in Colombia and were deported last year.
Annual statistical reports from Mexico's National Migration Institute (INM) also shed light on the number of Ecuadorians at the Mexican border. Between only 2010 and 2013, some 2,663 Ecuadorians were admitted to migrant detention centers, a number which progressively increased over this time period. Among these detainees were 177 minors who were returned to Ecuador. The truth is that out of all the children who crossed the border in 2013, 96 percent -- or 49,567 -- have already been reunited with their families in the United States, according to the latest report from the US Health and Humans Services Department, as EFE reported on July 10, 2014.
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Tambo, the tip of the iceberg
"I have to say that there are some students who normally attend classes but disappear at a specific time." So said Milton Correa, the head of the only public school in Tambo, in Cañar state. This was the last school that Nohemi Alvarez attended before beginning her trip.
Surrounded by green hills, the high school in El Tambo received 1,042 students in 2013, between ages 12 and 17, in two sessions: morning and evening. It was around this time that teachers reported a wave of child migration at the hands of coyoteros.
Teachers had to investigate each unexcused absence and report their findings. "I can say for sure that 40 students have left the school during the school year," said Nube Chogllo, the school counselor who put the teachers' reports together. "And of those, some left, some migrated, and others have tried to migrate. We know they've left because of information given to us by a relative, a friend, a colleague. They tell us, 'the student is in Nicaragua, is in Guayaquil, is in Mexico,' but time passes, and some cross [the border] and others return. "
Noemi's tomb in El Tambo, Ecuador. Photo by Daniela Aguilar.
There were times when teachers knew that a child was going to migrate and would try, unsuccessfully, to persuade them to at least finish the school year. According to Correa, the school principal, the main problem is the parents who put the trips together from the US.
"This phenomenon cannot be overcome because those who are not listening to us are those in charge of caring for the children," he said. "I do not know how to reach people who migrated to tell them not put their children at risk." The reunification of families, he says bluntly, should happen in reverse. If parents have achieved economic stability and want to be with their children, they should be the ones to return.
Of all the students in the high school, Nohemi Alvarez is the only one who is remembered for her unfortunate death. Despite not completing the school year -- in order to journey northward -- she was automatically transferred to the eighth grade. She only attended classes for a month before undertaking the exodus. Nube Chogllo interviewed her. Nohemi said she had to travel and did not know if she would return.
The counselor held back tears when thinking about what the little girl had lived through.
"Oh, if Nohemi could talk, what would she tell us," she murmured between long pauses. "These are things we'll never know."
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Leonela is 12 years old, with straight hair and tanned skin. Her days are spent going to school and wandering in the rice fields that separate her grandparents' adobe house from the cement house built by her parents and uncles, who are in the United States illegally. She lives in El Rosario, an indigenous community in Tambo.
Not that long ago, she was running around with Wendy and Nohemi, cousins who left with coyoteros at the start of 2014, in order to reconnect with their parents in New York. Wendy made it, but Nohemi died during the journey, under unknown circumstances. As a result Leonela was left without her playmates.
According to reports, children in transit to the US are subject to physical and sexual abuse. They are vulnerable to child prostitution gangs, and can also be kidnapped with the intention of extorting money from their parents. The children always carry phone numbers of relatives in belts or handles, and are passed from one coyote to another, often at border crossings.
The Ecuadorian penal code on human trafficking -- only valid until the end of July 2014 -- condemns not only coyotes, but "those responsible for the protection and custody of children or adolescents, whether father, mother, grandparents, uncles, brothers or guardian or any other person that facilitates in any way the execution of this illegal activity." Nevertheless, the Ecuadorian government has not established a protocol to stop the dozens of parents living illegally in the United States from paying people to bring them their children. Nor will the government be required to create one. The new criminal code adopted by Ecuador's Congress -- specifically in Section 11 on migration crimes -- removes that paragraph.
Nohemi Alvarez was found hanging from the shower curtain in a Mexican shelter belonging to the DIF (National System for Integral Family Development). Mexico reactivated the warrant for her smuggler, who was arrested but later released. In Ecuador, the Attorney General's Office initiated proceedings against four people, with two detained and warrants issued for the others. Naomi was sexually assaulted, according to an employee of the district attorney's office in Tambo. Her end was very different from the one described on her tombstone: "A peaceful death, like a sweet dream she closed her eyes, but her soul rose to the mansion of eternal light."
*This is article was written by Daniela Aguilar for La Historia, as part of the Investigative Reporting Initiative in the Americas by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), in partnership with Connectas. See Spanish original here.