Quito, Ecuador – Jazmin Lema set out from Ecuador in late August with her two-year-old daughter and her partner, Anthony, in hopes of joining her mother in New York City.
But as they travelled by bus towards Tijuana, a key migration point in northern Mexico, the smuggler they paid to bring them to the United States told the group to trek on foot around a checkpoint in the Sonora state desert to avoid detection.
Lema, who is believed to have suffered from dehydration, died on August 26, Ecuador’s foreign affairs ministry confirmed this month. The ministry told Al Jazeera that Mexican officials are still determining her exact cause of death.
“Don’t abandon my child. Bring her to my mom in Queens,” were Lema’s last words, according to an account Anthony shared with 1-800 Migrante, a New York-based group that offers legal services to Ecuadorian migrants and asylum seekers.
Hers is one of several recent cases of Ecuadorians taking perilous journeys to try to reach the US, migration advocates say, as thousands of people are leaving the South American nation amid a COVID-19 crisis, economic downturn, corruption and other systemic problems.
Many hope to reach the US, but often they are turned back at the border to Mexico, where a threat of violence against asylum seekers has swelled alongside recent migration figures.
Now, rights groups are urging Ecuador to do more to stem migration by addressing some of its root causes and find out what happened to the Ecuadorians who have gone missing or died trying to cross the US-Mexico border.
A regional branch of the foreign ministry confirmed that more than 30 Ecuadorians died between the start of the year and August 27 while trying to migrate irregularly, local media reported. “In Ecuador, the death of 30 Ecuadorians are felt – and the number continues to rise yet no one knows what happened [to them],” said William Murillo, director of 1-800 Migrante.
Ecuadorians now account for the fourth-highest number of encounters with US federal agents at the country’s southern border, US Customs and Border Protection (CPB) said, with more 17,000 cases in each of the past two months – up from about 13,000 in June.
But according to data from Ecuador’s Interior Ministry, more than 23,000 Ecuadorians travelled to Mexico in August and a little more than 8,000 returned to the country. The government has acknowledged that many Ecuadorians are not returning after going abroad.
In a speech on September 7 at a conference on human mobility in the country’s third-largest city, Cuenca, in Azuay province, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Mauricio Montalvo said more than 62,000 Ecuadorians have not come back after leaving the country in the first half of 2021.
Murillo at 1-800 Migrante said the fact that Ecuadorians have not required visas to enter Mexico during the past few years “has caused many people to believe that getting to the US through Mexico is easy – but that’s not the case”.
Like other migrants and asylum seekers, Ecuadorians can pay up to $25,000 to use the services of human smugglers – known as coyotes – who promise to get them through Mexico safely. But they are vulnerable to robberies, kidnappings, and extortion, and often they are abandoned in Mexico, Murillo told Al Jazeera.
Most Ecuadorians leaving for Mexico and the US come from traditional areas of migration in the rural southern Andean provinces of Canar and Azuay, where unemployment rates are high and development lags. “Since 2018 to now, we’ve been seeing a burst in migration [to Mexico] that has not happened in decades [from Ecuador],” said Murillo.
To try to stem the flow of irregular migration, the Ecuadorian government has adopted a four-pronged plan: bolster economic development, open pathways for regular migration, conduct anti-human trafficking operations and support Ecuadorians sent back to the country from abroad.
The plan includes the participation of public institutions and civil society. But while Deputy Minister of Human Mobility Luis Vayas said the inclusion of migration organisations would be important, the government has not said what specific groups will be involved in the process.
Vayas told Al Jazeera that the different public institutions and civil society groups will reconvene at the end of the year to evaluate the results of the state’s plan. “The main objective is a decrease in irregular migration – to see a decrease in the figures – hopefully by December,” said Vayas.
But Soledad Alvarez Velasco, a researcher at the Heidelberg Center for Ibero-American Studies, said the government’s effort focuses largely on human traffickers, when instead it should have set its priorities after speaking with migrant communities and migration rights groups.
Alvarez Velasco also said the government should provide social assistance to keep Ecuadorians in the country and address the root causes pushing many to leave. “It is not that coyotes set migrants into motion, it is not that coyotes move migrants – it’s the other way around,” she told Al Jazeera.
On August 20, the Mexican government announced it was reimposing a visa requirement for Ecuadorians to enter the country as tourists, saying in a statement that the decision came after an increase in the number of Ecuadorians arriving for non-touristic reasons.
The move prompted a rush to the airport and long queues at the Mexican embassy in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, ahead of September 4, when the change came into force.
At the end of August, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso also met his Mexican counterpart Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City to discuss commercial ties between the two countries, as well as migration.
Last week, Guatemala followed Mexico by announcing a return to visas for Ecuadorians after an uptick in arrivals. But the new visa requirements are unlikely to dissuade Ecuadorians from leaving the country or from seeking out potentially riskier paths, said Murillo.
In recent weeks, Mexican security and migration authorities have blocked new migrant caravans of mostly Central Americans, Haitians and Venezuelans, and with a Trump-era order that prevents most asylum seekers from being able to enter the US known as Title 42 still in effect, Mexico’s northern frontier is likely to remain dangerous.
Other routes may open through regional hub Panama, from where Ecuadorians can carry on through Central America or the equally insecure but more expensive Caribbean passage.
In July, 1-800 Migrante reported that seven Dominican nationals disappeared trying to cross the strait between the US state Florida and the Bahamas. A group of five Ecuadorians also went missing earlier this year along the same route.
“It doesn’t matter if they are detained. It doesn’t matter if they are deported. It doesn’t matter if they get caught by the police or even by the cartels,” said Alvarez Velasco. “[Migrants] do not cease to deploy new ways of changing their living conditions.”