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Deadly shipwreck brings crackdown on `coyotes'

Pressure from families of some of the 98 victims forces Ecuador to take a harder line with human smugglers.

February 04, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

CUENCA, ECUADOR — When the huge wave crashed down on the battered and weathered vessel in rough seas 100 miles off the coast of Colombia, more than an aging fishing boat was lost. Ninety-eight emigrants who were trapped below decks drowned, leaving behind 170 orphans and hundreds of other grieving relatives.

The shipwreck in August 2005 left this Andean town reeling. The passengers, most of whom came from Cuenca and its environs in southern Ecuador, had paid $8,000 to $10,000 to "coyotes" to arrange the five-day, 1,000-mile voyage from Ecuador's coast to Guatemala, and on to what they hoped would be better lives in the United States.

It's a popular dream here: As many as 2 million Ecuadoreans, or 15% of the population, have emigrated to the United States in the last 50 years, half of them since a devastating financial crisis in 1999, their routes greased by coyotes and their extensive criminal networks.

In this case, the dream became an unspeakable nightmare. Only nine passengers survived, clinging to floating fuel canisters and buoys until a Colombian navy vessel happened by two days later and picked them up.

But after decades during which Ecuador turned a blind eye to coyotes, unrelenting pressure brought to bear by grieving families of the shipwreck victims has finally forced the nation to take a harder line with the human smugglers.

Prosecutions here in Cuenca, the so-called nerve center of the coyote industry, doubled last year from 2005, said Paul Vasquez, special migration prosecutor with the province of Azuay, of which Cuenca is the capital. Nearly half of the 70 cases in 2006 resulted in jail sentences.

One of those sentenced was Milton Bautista Guzman, one of 10 alleged coyotes who arranged the ill-fated Aug. 13 voyage, who in December was ordered to spend eight years in prison for his part in the scheme. It may seem relatively light for the deaths of 98 people, especially given the life sentence a coyote named Tyrone Williams received in a Texas court last month in a case involving 19 illegal immigrants who suffocated in a truck he was driving in 2003.

But Vasquez said there had never been a tougher sentence handed down in a coyote case in Ecuador.

"The coyotes deceive their victims from the beginning, promising visas, that they are friends of ambassadors or consuls, and that they will make it easy to get to the United States," Vasquez said. "Once they have their money, the tricks become obvious and they take them on these highly dangerous trips."

Homes are taken

In addition to public pressure, the government has another reason for cracking down: the rising number of houses and farms that emigrants are losing to coyotes. Many Ecuadoreans can't make payments on the usurious loans they take out to finance their trip to El Norte and lose their properties in what amount to privately enforced foreclosures.

Cuenca attorney Aldo Auquilla said the going interest rate for a $10,000 coyote loan is 8% per month, or nearly 100% a year. He estimated that two of five emigrants who take out such loans end up losing the properties that secure them.

"A coyote is not just the one person with whom the emigrant makes contact -- it's a network that includes lawyers, congressmen, bankers and police, who have been bribed or blackmailed and who remain hidden from view," Auquilla said.

The conviction of Bautista brought bitter vindication to Guillermo Brito, a poor farmer whose daughter Julia Isabel, 27, was one of the victims of the shipwreck. He and his wife, Maria Angelica, now care for their daughter's three children, as well as three of Julia's siblings who still live at home.

"I begged her not to go, but her husband, who emigrated to Queens seven years ago, said he would leave her if she didn't join him there," Brito said. "She was torn but in the end decided to go, that she had to risk it."

After the shipwreck, Brito said, coyotes offered him and other family members up to $10,000 to keep quiet. But Brito, president of the "Aug. 13 Assn." of victims' families, refused and has pressed authorities to bring charges against coyotes. Vasquez took the case at the insistence of Brito and others.

"The life of a human being has no price," Brito said. He complained that the eight-year sentence wasn't severe enough. "But I'm happy our struggle was not in vain. It was horrible to see mothers of the victims with tears in their eyes and no justice."

Wilson Barahona, an attorney who is the province's public ombudsman, or legal advocate, said the Aug. 13 disaster was a turning point in how the province viewed coyotes.

"The coyotes have amassed huge fortunes. Many of them are quite well known around here, as lawyers, travel agents and teachers," he said. "But the province is prosecuting them because they are threats to society. Terrible things happen to people who trust them."

Heroes to some

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