EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Ecuadorians have been leaving their 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.

William Murillo

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 […] they’re barely starting to vaccinate over there.”

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 $15,000 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.”

A mother and her children from Ecuador walk to where the United States Border Patrol is processing them after they illegally entered the United States on March 29, 2021 in Roma, Texas. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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.”

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 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.