Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Beyond common-sense notions of human smuggling in the Americas

Once mainly a sending-country of migrants to the US, Ecuador has become a transit zone migrants from all over the world as they seek to reach new destinations. Español

Martha Ruiz Soledad Álvarez-Velasco
4 April 2016

The Andes mountains, Ecuador. Daran Kandasamy/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

The smuggling of migrants has come to be one of the most mediatised and politicised dimensions of contemporary migration. Global media frequently shows a supposed migratory crisis at border zones – particularly at European and US extended fringes – or at zones of transit towards both destinations. In those spaces an apparently state of lawlessness prevails due to the arrival of poor, irregularised migrants brought by smugglers. Whilst the most repetitive images come from Europe, specifically from the Mediterranean and eastern European zones, other images from the American continent have also been mediatised.

Such is the case of the recent migratory crisis of Cuban irregularised migrants stuck between Costa Rica and Nicaragua; or the crisis of unaccompanied children migrating through Central America and Mexico towards the US; or the 2011 massacre of irregularised migrants in San Fernando, Mexico – all reveal the humanitarian crisis of the Mexico-U.S. corridor. The images arising from each of these events indeed capture the most violent part of two of the principal smuggling routes worldwide: the one directed towards Europe, and the other towards the US.

In the face of this crisis, states have replied with unprecedented migratory restrictions and a spectacular security deployment to supposedly protect the rights of migrants and to safeguard their national security. However, we can all agree that – despite the spectacle of security – origin, transit, and destination states have all failed to curb either irregularised migration and the smuggling of migrants, or the reproduction of social and state violence against migrants.

I would like to cast doubt on three assumptions regarding migrant smuggling; assumptions which are recurrently reproduced in the media and political agenda. First, the assumption that we know what migrant smuggling is and how it operates. Second, the assumption that it is a novelty. And, third, the assumption that a simple formula suffices to explain it – smuggling is conceived as a crime that occurs at the margin of or against a state, the smuggler is a criminal, the migrant a victim, and the state a force for good. Casting doubt on these assumptions might help us to question common notions of what a migratory crisis is, as it would relate the historical, social, and economic dimensions of migrant smuggling in the American continent to contemporary systemic inequality.

The case of Ecuador

The Ecuadorean case is relevant for two reasons. On the on hand, the aforementioned images are direct linked with Ecuadorean migratory dynamics: the Cubans stuck between Costa Rica and Nicaragua previously departed from Ecuador, in some cases with the aid of smugglers or coyotes; among those unaccompanied children crossing Central America and Mexico were Ecuadoreans that arrived with coyotes; one of the survivors of the massacre in San Fernando was an Ecuadorean irregularised migrant.

On the other, Ecuador has more than a 50-year history of clandestine transits and smuggling of migrants towards the US. Since 2008, it has turned into a trampoline used by international irregularised migrants from the Caribbean region, Asia, and Africa to reach the US or other continental destinations with the aid of coyotes. Thus, the evidence provided by previous ethnographic studies on the Ecuadorian case as well as my own doctoral work can help dismantle assumptions and reveal the historical social role played by coyotes. It can also show that, in the midst of the securitisation turn, coyotes end up doing state tasks – such as enabling processes of family reunification, or creating channels through which migrants’ life projects are fulfilled – by offering their services.

As barriers of entry to the US through legal pathways have become greater, more regions have turned into zones of transit for migrants heading there and elsewhere. Latin America is a good example: while it remains a sending region of irregularised migrants via coyoterismo – the practice of smuggling – towards the US, it has also become a receiving area for new and more diverse global flows. This transformation is largely explained by the globalisation of military, political, and socio-economic conflicts in various parts of the world. Nowadays the region receives extra-continental mixed flows (economic migrants and asylum seekers) from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, as well as intra-regional flows, deportees, and returned migrants. Although the US continues to be the main destination, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile have surged as new destinations to where South Americans, Caribbean and extra-continental migrants arrive via coyoterismo. In the routes towards the US, the Andean region has turned into a key space, especially the zone of transit between Colombia and Ecuador.

From its traditional stance as a sending country of labour power, over the last decade Ecuador has been experiencing diversification in its migratory patterns. Global and national trends converge as main causes: the global securitisation regime; the 2008 financial crisis; the globalisation of the effects of military and socio-economic conflicts in multiple regions; Ecuador’s coyoterismo history; its geographical position; its dollarised economy; and its selectively and increasingly incoherent open-border migratory policy. Thence, Ecuador has turned into: a receptacle for mixed flows (economic migrants, asylum seekers, and Ecuadorean returned migrants); a springboard from which to reach other continental destinations; and a revolving door used by migrants to recommence their journeys specially after being deported, while simultaneously continuing to be a sending country. 

In the midst of this new migratory pattern, we now see that at least two modes of migrant smuggling has taken root in Ecuador today. One flow is composed of Ecuadoreans, including first time migrants, deportees, and unaccompanied children, who continue to go to the US as part of 50-year historical pattern. The second flow is comprised of international migrants, who use Ecuador as a staging area to go to the US or other continental destinations with the aid of coyotes.

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