For Colombians in Ecuador, Displacement is Ongoing, and Refuge is Elusive

Although the international resettlement system considers Ecuador to be a safe country, refugees tell a different story.

June 28, 2022

Busy streets in Quito, Ecuador are sites of persecution for Colombian refugees, Feb 2022 (Alana Ackerman)

Miguel, an Afro-Colombian refugee, is sitting on a mattress in the single room he rents with his wife and five-year-old son in the south of Quito, Ecuador. They are originally from Buenaventura, a port city on the Pacific coast of Colombia, where Miguel used to earn a living as a mechanic, and his wife worked part-time as a nail technician. They have been in Quito since July 2021. Although Miguel misses home, he says multiple times during our interview: “No se puede volver.” We can’t go back.

Miguel, whose name has been changed, explains why he and his family had to flee home almost a year ago.

“They arrived at our door and almost knocked it down. They demanded 6 million pesos [approximately $1,580], and if we couldn’t pay them, they were going to kill us,” Miguel said. “They needed it now. But we didn’t have the money.” The armed men fired a shot in the direction of Miguel’s son as a warning. He tries to forget that moment, but the image is seared in his memory. Miguel and his wife paid the armed men everything they had, but it wasn’t enough. “They said they would be back the next day for the rest of their money. But we couldn’t gather the rest. That’s why we left Colombia.”

Miguel’s testimony depicts the violence that countless people in Colombia face on a daily basis. Unable to pay the vacuna—a tax or bribe that armed groups frequently demand in Colombia to sustain their operations—Miguel and his family had no choice but to flee.

During the past several decades, approximately 7.9 million people from Colombia have been forced to flee their homes as a result of violence that is rooted in state abandonment, guerrilla and paramilitary stand-offs, international drug trafficking, and the rise of local gangs. While most displaced people have stayed in the country, many desplazados seek refuge in Quito because it is relatively easy to reach and access an international protection visa, the technical term for refugee status. However, the visa does little to protect refugees’ lives.

While armed conflict is longstanding in Colombia, more recent is the growing presence of Colombian armed groups in Ecuador, which has been on the rise during the past year and a half. The increasing numbers of refugees in Quito and their testimonies of ongoing persecution and flight are evidence of the transnational reach of “local” armed actors.

The “Colombian Conflict” Turns Transnational

Miguel thought that once he and his family arrived in Quito, they would be safe from the men that threatened them in Buenaventura. He quickly learned he was wrong.

“They found me here in Quito, some people who work for the same group in Colombia,” Miguel said. At the time, Miguel was working at a mechanic shop. He was fixing a car in the street when armed men rode by on a motorcycle and recognized him. They shouted out a warning, and Miguel immediately ran inside the shop and hid in a basement until he felt safe enough to emerge. A few days later, the same men spotted him outside the building where he lived with his wife and son. Within 24 hours, Miguel and his family packed their suitcase and set out in search of another place to live in Quito.

Miguel tells me that the armed men threatening him and his family are members of Los Chotas (sometimes spelled “Los Shotas”), one of various organized gangs in Buenaventura that vie for territorial, political, and economic control of the port city, and especially its international drug trade. The group formed in Buenaventura at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, when members of La Local splintered into two separate factions: Los Chotas and Los Espartanos. These supposedly local gangs, however, also operate outside Colombia’s borders.

The “Colombian conflict” has spilled over the border into neighboring Ecuador before. The most notable example was in 2008, when the Colombian army pursued “Raúl Reyes” (real name Luis Edgar Devia Silva), a leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, into Ecuadorian territory and assassinated him. What is new, however, is the growing presence of Colombian armed groups that operate within Ecuador. Miguel is just one of many refugees who experience ongoing threats and persecution even after crossing the border.

It seems like a lot of effort for armed groups from Colombia to continue persecuting victims across international borders for what appear to be petty sums of money. Marlene Morillo, a migration lawyer at Caritas, an international NGO with offices in Ecuador, recognizes this reality. She said that although she does not know why these criminal groups persecute their victims transnationally, they clearly have extensive networks and channels of information. 

When asked why he thinks armed groups go to such lengths to track down refugees, Miguel shrugs and smiles wryly through the Zoom screen. “This is what they do.”    

The International Resettlement System Falls Short

Despite the ongoing threats to his life in Quito, Miguel—and many refugees from Colombia—are unable to leave Ecuador. Most refugees from Buenaventura are Afro-Colombians who experience daily racism in Quito. Employers rarely hire them, so many work long hours in the streets, selling bags of fruit or cleaning windshields for tips at busy intersections. Although there are buses from Quito to Peru or Chile—countries that might provide greater distance from Colombia—it is nearly impossible for refugees in Ecuador to earn enough income to be food secure, let alone save for a bus ticket.

A distant hope for many refugees is resettlement, a legal process by which certain individual cases are analyzed within a “host country” for relocation to a third country, due to “specific protection needs.” Organizations like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) facilitate this process for refugees in Ecuador, but it is complex. Their websites and employees make clear that resettlement is not a right, that individuals cannot apply for this process themselves, and that very few refugees in Ecuador are actually referred for or obtain resettlement to a third country. The international resettlement system operates under the assumption that Ecuador is a country of acogida (shelter or refuge) and that refugees in Ecuador have a responsibility to focus on “local integration.”

This means that refugees like Miguel are often out of options for leaving Ecuador. Miguel became tense as he recalled his conversation about resettlement with a social worker at a local NGO.

“The social worker asked me if I had come from Colombia with the dream of having them send me to another country. They said I should come down from those clouds. They made me feel so bad, because I said, they must have no idea what I am going through, what I have suffered since Colombia, for them to ask me those questions,” he said. “I don’t feel that support, that they are taking care of me. Truthfully, I don’t feel protected.”

The Defensoría del Pueblo is the entity responsible for providing protection from armed actors in Quito. But when Miguel visited the Defensoría del Pueblo after being chased off a bus in Quito by armed men, the public bureaucrats refused to register his complaint on the basis that Miguel didn’t know the names of his assailants. When asked whether refugees actually need to know their persecutors’ names in order to file a complaint, a social worker at a local NGO in Quito groaned and said that often, public bureaucrats’ refusal to register refugees’ complaints is yet another example of anti-Black and anti-Colombian racism in Ecuador.

Meanwhile, Miguel has a “panic button” that the police provided for him. He is supposed to dial the assigned number on his cell phone if he feels threatened and needs assistance. Miguel told me he tried to use it once when he saw strange men lurking outside his apartment one afternoon. But the call didn’t work; the police never showed up. Miguel didn’t leave his apartment for the rest of the day, and eventually, the men left on their own. 

Miguel dreams of a future outside of Ecuador. The UNHCR is assisting him and his family with their case for resettlement to the United States, but Miguel knows their chances are slim, and even if their case is successful, the process can take years.

La verdad, como le digo, no es seguro aquí [en Quito]. Se puede decir que es otra Colombia.” The truth is, as I’ve said, it isn’t safe here [in Quito]. You could say it’s another Colombia.

Alana Ackerman is a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is currently conducting long-term ethnographic research for a dissertation on Colombian refugees’ experiences of ongoing displacement in Ecuador, a place of supposed arrival.

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