The U.S. and Ecuador: Is Intervention on the Table?

January 27, 2013

Over the last decade, the United States has come to view Ecuador as a security threat for the entire Western Hemisphere. The growing population of undocumented Ecuadorans in the United States has been accompanied by the development of internationally connected human smuggling operations in Ecuador. U.S.-Ecuador relations have soured as President Rafael Correa continues to decry U.S. efforts to plug perceived holes in Ecuador’s borders as violations of Ecuadoran sovereignty. While critics charge that the portrayal of Ecuador as a terrorist springboard to the United States is patently false, it has successfully propelled the expansion of extra-territorial policing efforts in South America, inadvertently solidified Ecuador as a smuggling hub, and laid the rhetorical groundwork for justifying future interventions in the region.

1501Photo by U.S. Coast Guard

About 10% of Ecuador’s population of 14 million lives outside the country; half of these migrants—over 560,000—are in the United States.1 Most of this migration to the United States is unauthorized, and in 2011, Ecuador was eighth on the list of origin countries for apprehended undocumented migrants. What really began to raise eyebrows in the United States, however, was the development of illicit networks to facilitate Ecuadoran migration.

Until around 1985, unauthorized Ecuadoran migrants simply flew to Mexico and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border by land. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, amid the War on Drugs and growing public unease over increasing Latino immigration, the United States pressured Mexico to tighten its borders and visa process. Then, in 1996, the United States and Mexico established the Regional Conference on Migration, also known as the Puebla Process, a forum through which members—Canada, the United States, Mexico, and Central American and Caribbean nations—could share “best practices,” engage in joint policing efforts, and train immigration authorities. In addition, the United States spearheaded bilateral agreements with Mexico and Guatemala aimed specifically at stopping Latin American migrants before they reached the U.S.-Mexico border, including the imposition of special visa requirements by some transit countries.2

In Ecuador, a system quickly developed in response to these efforts. Ecuadorans determined to get to the United States contracted smugglers, known as coyotes or coyoteros, who for a few thousand dollars flew migrants to Central American countries that did not require special visas and then moved them north by land.3 However, after a severe political and economic crisis hit Ecuador in 1999, transporting migrants a few at a time, as air travel allowed, could not fill the demand for migration services. Smugglers looked to the sea for a new route, and vessels began to leave from Ecuador’s coast to travel north to Guatemala, Nicaragua, or Mexico. The boats employed were often dangerously overcrowded and unsafe, and there were numerous reports of shipwrecks and drownings.4

The opening of the sea route coincided with the expansion of U.S. Coast Guard’s policing activities into the eastern Pacific. In the context of the Drug War and continued Latin American migration—including surging South American migration—the United States signed bilateral agreements with over 25 Central and South American countries that allow the Coast Guard to police their territorial waters.5 In addition, the U.S. military established a base in Manta, Ecuador, that facilitated heightened migration policing south beyond the Caribbean.6 If close to Ecuador, the Coast Guard landed intercepted migrants at the Manta base. If farther afield, migrants were offloaded in Guatemala or Mexico to be detained and eventually deported. Though the sea route was largely abandoned as the crisis-induced migration frenzy dissipated, Coast Guard operations in the eastern Pacific served to “push out” U.S. borders by setting a precedent for international boundary policing activities. (The number of Ecuadorans interdicted by the Coast Guard reached a high of 1,608 in 2002, held relatively steady for a few years, then declined after 2006.)7 What’s more, an international framework for stopping migrants traveling between South America and the United States was established.

Despite—and because of—these geographically expansive policing efforts, the smuggling industry continues to play an important role in Ecuador-U.S. migration. The preferred route now is to first fly from Ecuador to Honduras, though some migrants make the entire trip by land. While few Ecuadorans today face the dangers of the sea route, those in transit still confront grave risks, as seen in the presence of Ecuadorans among the victims in the August 2011 Tamaulipas, Mexico, massacre of 72 migrants.8 Smuggling fees have also climbed; migrants now pay around $15,000 to get to the United States, a debt that typically takes years to repay.

As it became more organized in order to circumvent the U.S. enforcement net, Ecuador’s human smuggling industry also developed international connections. Migrants tapped into the network from countries both inside the region, such as Peru and Colombia, and from much farther away. For example, Chinese, Indians, Nepalis, and Saudi Arabians were reportedly intercepted at sea on Ecuadoran smuggling vessels. The entrance of these migrants into Ecuador was facilitated by the country’s relatively liberal visa policy, requiring a tourist visa from only 27 countries.9

After the events of September 11, 2001, U.S. officials viewed the entrance of such foreign nationals into the Americas with increasing concern. They feared that not only was Ecuador becoming a portal for U.S.-bound migrants from around the world, but that Ecuador’s surging smuggling and criminal infrastructure would attract international terrorists. Indeed, as early as 2005, U.S. officials suggested that Al Qaeda could be operating on Ecuador’s borders.10 Such unsubstantiated claims suggest a failure to see links between U.S.-driven intervention in the Middle East and forced migration, as well as between hardening international borders and the rise of globally connected smuggling operations.

A fundamental shift in Ecuador-U.S. relations in the mid-2000s caused U.S. alarm bells to sound. Previously, the Ecuadoran government had generally cooperated with the United States in boundary policing and smuggling efforts, as seen in the construction of the Manta base. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had also worked directly with a unit of the Ecuadoran National Police, called the Anti-Contraband Operative Unit (COAP), offering funds, equipment, and training. In addition, the government accepted advice from the United States in efforts to thwart human smuggling, such as how to make national identity cards more difficult to falsify, according to Pablo de la Vega, of the Ministry of Foreign Relations, speaking in July 2007.

However, U.S. activities at and within Ecuador’s borders were increasingly interpreted as an affront to Ecuadoran sovereignty, provoking growing public and political ire in Ecuador. For example, critics charged that ICE had too much control over COAP, even purportedly sending the police unit to exit hot spots to detain U.S.-bound migrants.

The Manta base in particular became a major source of controversy. First, the base’s 10-year lease had been signed in 1999 by a short-lived president and never ratified by a legislative body, leading to persistent claims that the base was on national soil illegally. Second, the obvious involvement of the base in migrant interdiction violated provisions of the base’s lease, which limited U.S. activities to those related to combating drug trafficking. Additionally, intercepted Ecuadorans complained of abusive behavior by U.S. sailors. What sparked the most controversy, however, was the U.S. practice of burning and sinking some of the captured vessels. While the Coast Guard states that it sinks only unmanned vessels and only when absolutely necessary, many Ecuadorans believed that most intercepted boats were fishing vessels sunk to scare smugglers and migrants.11

U.S.-Ecuador relations deteriorated on a governmental level when left-leaning Rafael Correa became president in 2007. Much of Correa’s popularity stems from his willingness to defy the United States, and he has taken numerous actions that have frustrated U.S. efforts to police the Ecuador-U.S. boundary. In early 2008, Correa announced that he would not renew the lease for the Manta base when it expired the following year, and the United States was forced to close the base and transfer its operations to Colombia.

Then, in June 2008, Correa declared, “We are on a campaign to dismantle that 20th-century invention of passports and visas.”12 He has since promoted the idea of “universal citizenship,” stating that safe and secure human mobility across international borders is a fundamental human right. In a symbolic move to back this up, Correa also altered policy so that anyone, from anywhere in the world, could visit Ecuador without a visa for 90 days, a move still unmatched in scope in South America.

The new policy dismayed U.S. officials, who saw Correa’s declaration as blatantly irresponsible. And, in fact, international smugglers took note as well. The day after the policy went into effect, planes of Chinese migrants to be fed into existing smuggling networks began arriving in Ecuador. By December of that year, about 12,000 Chinese had entered the country, and Correa revised the policy to require more documentation from Chinese visitors.13

But there have since been reports of other nationalities using Ecuador as a transit country. Of particular concern are migrants from Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and countries of East Africa. Ecuador did add entry requirements in 2010 for nine countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Somalia) in response to concerns, but U.S. officials believe migrants from terrorist hot spots could still piece together routes to the United States. For example, they believe, someone from Pakistan could travel to Iran, fly to Ecuador, and purchase falsified Ecuadoran identity documents from the now well-established forgery industry, and then travel to Central American countries that allow Ecuadorans to visit without a visa.14

Further heightening tensions, Correa in January 2009 abruptly terminated U.S. cooperation with COAP and expelled two ICE attachés, alleging that ICE was requiring control over COAP in exchange for funds. In a characteristically dramatic radio address, Correa told one of the attachés to “keep your dirty money!” “We don’t need it,” he said. “Here there is sovereignty and dignity.”15 Ecuador’s relationship with the United States reached a low point in April 2011, when Correa abruptly expelled the U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges in response to WikiLeaks’ release of a report in which Hodge suggested that Correa was aware of and perhaps complicit with corruption in the Ecuadoran National Police. The United States responded with the expulsion of Ecuador’s ambassador.

While diplomatic relations have been reestablished, these events accompanied a growing sense of panic surrounding Ecuador on the part of some officials and analysts. Strategic studies have warned about links between Correa’s government and Colombia’s FARC, cite reports of criminal organizations from China, Colombia, and Russia in Ecuador, and allege that groups like Hezbollah are operating there.16 Some analysts even interpret recent agreements with Iran to develop mineral resources in Ecuador as dangerous attempts to aid Iran’s nuclear program, and see commercial and energy agreements with Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela as “government-authorized illicit tunnels.”17

In February 2012, Correa made another policy change in line with the idea of “universal citizenship” that further upset U.S. officials: He significantly lowered requirements for obtaining Ecuadoran citizenship to two years of residence. Conservative U.S. analysts issued grave warnings that now “virtually anyone” can easily obtain an Ecuadoran passport to facilitate movement north toward U.S. borders. Otto Reich, former assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and Ezequiel Vázquez Ger stated in a blog:

The government of Ecuador has once again crossed the line between irresponsible policies and ideologically driven actions that have created a serious security problem not only for its citizens but also for the entire Western Hemisphere. The disarray created in Ecuador’s immigration policy has permitted transnational criminal organizations and terrorist groups—possibly including al Qaeda—to potentially use the country as a base of operations with the ultimate objective of harming the United States.18

Ecuador-U.S. relations have continued to sour. In June, Correa announced that Ecuador was withdrawing from the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas, ending a long-standing relationship through which Ecuadoran military officers received U.S. training.19 Correa has also threatened to expel USAID, charging that its projects have ulterior motives of destabilizing the Ecuadoran government.20 Then, in August, Ecuador granted political asylum to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, who is holed up in Ecuador’s British embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden and then, potentially, to the United States.21 Collectively, this suite of actions has led many U.S. analysts and policy advisers to view Ecuador as a serious, sinister threat.

Defenders of Ecuador have responded that U.S. fears are unsupported and illogical. For instance, Nathalie Cely, the Ecuadoran ambassador to the United States, concluded that Reich and Vazquez Ger’s blog was full of “invented conspiracy theories.”22 Indeed, the idea that hordes of “dangerous” foreigners are streaming through Ecuador appears overblown; for example, the numbers of Pakistanis recorded entering Ecuador in 2010 was 253; Indians, 192; and Afghans, 72. What’s more, such an alarmist view is based on the assumption that all non–Latin Americans who enter Ecuador are terrorists, instead of people driven from their home countries by poverty, fear, and persecution. This view also ignores recent cooperation of Ecuadoran law enforcement in the capture and extradition of international criminals to the United States.23 The likelihood exists, too, that international criminals are drawn to Ecuador more by the spreading effects of the U.S. Drug War than by migrant smuggling. Even Ecuadorans who do not fully support Correa generally view his actions as rightful assertions of sovereignty for a country long bullied by the United States.

Whether based on fact or paranoid fantasy, what, then, is accomplished by U.S. hysteria about Ecuador? Migration from Ecuador to the United States—with the involvement of smugglers—continues. In fact, increased extra-territorial policing has solidified smuggling operations, as migrants find smuggling services necessary to reach their destination, and smugglers expand networks and develop international connections. Indeed, policy makers and analysts’ singular focus illustrates a stubborn ignorance regarding the desperation behind circuitous migration paths and the glaring socioeconomic disparities between source and destination countries. Furthermore, such tunnel vision highlights the clash of Ecuadorans’ increasingly vocal assertion of their sovereign rights with U.S. officials’ assertion of their right to police human mobility far from U.S. borders.

Despite these failures and contradictions, U.S. anxiety has accomplished two possible objectives, which deserve careful scrutiny. First, it has played a role in the expansion of U.S. boundary policing into the eastern Pacific and put into place a framework to control national borders far south of U.S. territory. Second, hawkish reactions hint that the time may soon come for more aggressive action. For example, in a February 2011 blog post, José Cárdenas, former adviser on Latin American relations for the Bush administration, wrote of Chávez and Correa’s relationships with Iran: “If their actions are found to constitute a threat to international peace and security, they must be made to pay the price.”24 Cárdenas strongly criticized the Obama administration for maintaining diplomatic relations with the Correa government. In their April post, Reich and Vázquez Ger claimed that Ecuador was “becoming a failed state” and suggested “the time has come” to do something to stop the supposedly out-of-control flow of terrorists and other illicit goods and activities in Ecuador. The laying of such foundations for future direct intervention in the region merits critical attention and vigilance.



Nancy Hiemstra is an Assistant Professor of Migration Studies in the Department of Cultural Analysis and Theory at Stony Brook University. Her current research projects explore U.S. efforts to police extra-territorial boundaries and the consequences in Ecuador of U.S. migrant detention and deportation.



1. Gioconda Herrera Mosquera, Maria Isabel Moncayo, and Alexandra Escobar, “Perfil migratorio del Ecuador 2011”(2012). International Organization for Migration: Quito, Ecuador. Available at

2. Jacques Ramírez and Soledad Álvarez, “Cruzando fronteras: una aproximación etnográfica a la migración clandestina ecuatoriana en tránsito hacia Estados Unidos,” Confluenze: Rivisti di studi iberoamericani, Bologna, Italy, 1, no. 1 (2009): 89–113.

3. David Kyle and Zai Liang, “Migration Merchants: Human Smuggling From Ecuador and China to the United States,” in V. Guiraudon and C. Joppke, eds., Controlling a New Migration World (Routledge, 2001), 200-221.

4. Jacques Ramírez and Soledad Álvarez, “Cruzando fronteras”; Ginger Thompson and Sandra Ochoa, “By a Back Door to the US: A Migrant’s Grim Sea Voyage,” The New York Times, June 13, 2004.

5. House of Representatives, Overview of Coast Guard Drug and Migrant Interdiction: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, 111th Cong., 1st sess., March 11, 2009.

6. Michael Flynn, “Donde está la frontera?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July-August (2002): 24–35; Bruce Finley, “U.S. Takes Border War on the Road,” Denver Post, December 19, 2004.

7. U.S. Coast Guard, “Total Interdictions: Fiscal Year 1982 to Present,” 2010, available at

8. Randal Archibold, “Victims of Massacre in Mexico Said to Be Migrants,” The New York Times, August 25, 2010.

9. (Quito, Ecuador), “Correa elimina el visado a los extranjeros,” June 12, 2008.

10. Michael Flynn, “What’s the Deal at Manta?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 61, no. 1 (2005): 23–29.

11. Juan Carlos Calderón Vivanco, Naufragio: migración y muerte en el Pacífico (Quito, Ecuador: Paradiso Editores, 2007).

12. “Correa elimina el visado a los extranjeros.”

13. Sean Bowditch, “Smuggling Route Goes Through Ecuador to U.S.,” National Public Radio, February 28, 2009, available at

14. Elyssa Pachico, “Bin Laden’s Cousin Arrested in Ecuador?” In Sight: Organized Crime in the Americas, May 5, 2011, available at; Otto Reich and Ezekiel Vazquez Ger, “How Ecuador’s Immigration Policy Helps al Qaeda,” Shadow Government (blog), April 2, 2012, available at

15. Gabriela Molina, “Ecuador’s President Orders US Diplomat Expelled,” The Washington Post/Associated Press, February 7, 2009; U.S. Department of State, “Country Report: Ecuador,” 2012, available at

16. Douglas Farah and Glenn Simpson, “Ecuador at Risk: Drugs, Thugs, Guerrillas and the Citizens’ Revolution,” International Assessment and Strategy Center, 2012, available at; Douglas. Farah, “Hezbollah in Latin America: Implications for U.S. Security,” testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security, July 7, 2012, available at

17. José Cardénas, “Iran’s Man in Ecuador,” Shadow Government (blog), February 15, 2011, available at

18. Reich and Vazquez Ger, “How Ecuador’s Immigration Policy Helps al Qaeda.”

19. José Cardénas, “President Correa’s Chutzpah Hurts Ecuador-U.S. Relations,” Shadow Government (blog), July 11, 2012,

20. OOSKAnews Correspondent, “USAID Presence in Ecuador Threatened by Questions Over Motives for Project,” OOSKAnews, July 16, 2012, available at

21. William Neuman and Maggy Ayala, “Ecuador Grants Asylum to Assange, Defying Britain,” The New York Times, August 16, 2012.

22. Nathalie Cely, “Ecuador’s Immigration Policy Does Not Help Terrorists,” Shadow Government (blog), April 6, 2012, available at; Gabriela Calderon de Burgos, “Ecuador: Abrir las fronteras no es cooperar con terroristas,” Cato Institute, Washington, DC, April 11, 2012, available at

23. Cely, “Ecuador’s Immigration Policy Does Not Help Terrorists.”

24. Cárdenas, “Iran’s Man in Ecuador.”


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