Refugees in Ecuador: Plan Colombia and the Asylum Lottery

This is the first part in a three-part series on asylum in Ecuador. The series deals with Ecuador’s response to the refugee crisis created by the ongoing conflict in Colombia, the daily challenges of surviving as a refugee in Ecuador, and how refugees are organizing themselves to demand their human rights.

This is the first part in a three-part series on asylum in Ecuador. The series deals with Ecuador’s response to the refugee crisis created by the ongoing conflict in Colombia, the daily challenges of surviving as a refugee in Ecuador, and how refugees are organizing themselves to demand their human rights.

After eight years and $7 billion spent, Plan Colombia has merely dented the drug trade. Perhaps its greatest "achievement" has been the rise in displaced persons and subsequent refugee flows, in turn making Ecuador home to the most refugees in the Western Hemisphere. But "refuge" is a misnomer: the great majority of refugees are undocumented and have little more stability than they did in Colombia.

From La Violencia to Plan Colombia

To understand the ties between Plan Colombia, its familiar neoliberal template, and the refugee situation in Ecuador, a little context is in order. Land reform is the primary thread in Latin American resistance, from the Mexican Revolution to the Sem Terra in Brazil. And Colombia’s civil war is no exception.

In the 1950s, the recently deceased Manuel Marulanda Vélez (better known as "Tirofijo," or Sureshot) founded a militia that would become the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It was the epoch known as La Violencia, when the type of rural massacres, wholesale land seizures and political persecution that has plagued Colombia since the 1980s was also the norm. Tirofijo and other peasants created a self-defense militia, adopted a Communist ideology, and after unifying with other rural, separatist groups formally became the FARC after the Colombian military first attacked them in 1964.

Fast-forward to the 1980s and Colombia’s conflict begins to better resemble the Scarface stereotype. At that time, the burgeoning US and European yuppie class popularized cocaine as their drug of choice, and the emergence of crack as an alternative to be pushed in poor African American neighborhoods enabled armed groups in Colombia to use narco-trafficking as a new and seemingly-unlimited source of income. This aided paramilitaries in organizing, and as a result they became a mélange of government-subcontracted fighting forces, land-thieves at the service of elites and transnational corporations, self-defense militias, narco-mafias, and groups seeking vendettas against the guerrillas for kidnapping and land seizure.

The appearance of the paramilitaries marked a turning point in the conflict. What had been a rather clear-cut war between the Colombian military and a handful of guerrilla groups became an explosive and murky morass of insurgents, paramilitaries, narcotraffickers, soldiers and compromised politicians. Today, with rumors that FARC members may be collaborating with new emerging paramilitary groups, it is clear the ideological underpinnings that shaped the conflict decades ago have taken a distant back seat.

After the cocaine/paramilitary explosion, the FARC also engaged in tactics such as kidnapping and drug trafficking, especially after paramilitaries murdered thousands of FARC members who attempted to transition into politics via the Patriotic Union party. With the moderate, pro-dialogue wing of the FARC killed off, only the group’s more extreme and militant leaders remained.

Throughout the 1990s chainsaw massacres, mass displacements and avalanches of cocaine money became the norm in this violence-plagued country. The consequences of this gruesome conflict are hardly quantifiable: 300,000 killed in the last ten years, 3,800 trade unionists murdered since the mid-1980s, 1,300 mass graves found since April 2006, between 2 and 4 million people displaced by violence, and 4 million hectares—one-third of all arable land in Colombia—has been robbed, leaving 0.3% of Colombians with more than half the land. All this while, at the height of its power, the Cali cartel made $7 billion in a single year.

Plan Colombia, the United States’ ingenious supply-side assault on "narcoterrorism," has dispensed $6.7 billion since its inception in 2000 (or about as much as one cartel can make in a year). An average of 80% of the funds goes to military and police aid while a scant 20% is dedicated to economic and social assistance.1 The plan is couched in the language of the wars on drugs and terror, but its function is traditionally neoliberal—to make Colombia safe for business and secure access to valuable mineral, petroleum, water and biodiversity resources.

When President Clinton traveled to Colombia to transfer the first installment of Plan Colombia funding, he was accompanied by more than twenty executives, amongst them chiefs of Drummond mining, the oil company Seven Seas, Bell South and Liz Clairborne.2 The Occidental Oil Company receives around $90 million per year from Plan Colombia towards protection of its pipeline, and Drummond has been exposed for hiring paramilitaries to murder union officials.

Plan Colombia funding also goes towards training Colombian soldiers and police, buying armaments and helicopters, the blanket fumigation of coca crops (as well as whatever legal crops happen to be around, which at times include USAID’s own alternative development projects), and efforts to reform and strengthen the Colombian justice system.

Theoretically, 25% of this funding is contingent on Colombia meeting human rights norms, but considering the current parapolitics scandal,3 continued death threats towards union organizers, the trend of innocent civilians being killed by the military and then dressed as FARC guerrillas, and the sorry state of the paramilitary demobilization process—intentionally undermined via extradition of paramilitary bosses to the US, such human rights stipulations appear to be little more than a meaningless window dressing.

How far is far enough?

Plan Colombia, after dispensing with $7 billion, has had little effect on the amount of cocaine entering the US and its street price. However, its effect on displacement has been enormous. Since 2000, 2.4 million Colombians have been displaced from their homes, and while only 475 people solicited refuge in Ecuador in 2000, this number jumped to 3,017 the next year and 6,766 in 2002. Only a fraction of all refugees actually solicit formal asylum.

Internal displacement and refugees are the same issue, only one involves an international border. People living in rural areas are frequently displaced to the major cities due to Plan Colombia fumigation, forced recruitment by the FARC and paramilitaries, the taxes they demand (called la vacuna– the vaccine), land seizure, the persecution of political organizers, the targeting of relatives in vendettas, and retaliation by one side against those forced to collaborate with the other. However, as the FARC and paramilitaries have national intelligence networks (Jorge Noguera stands accused of giving information to paramilitary groups while leader of the Administrative Security Department—Colombia’s equivalent to the CIA), one move is hardly enough.

Rolando, a merchant from the countryside near Bogotá, was displaced twice before coming to Ecuador. He shared his story:

"In the year 2000 they killed a brother of mine in Bogotá. The Colombian national police intervened in [the case of] the assassination. My brother was a judge, and at the moment of his assassination he was with a driver he had and as a witness he involved certain people. We lived four hours from Bogotá, and when they told us that he’d been killed we went to reclaim the body. The Attorney General of Colombia had already captured all the people involved in the murder, but by that evening there was no longer anyone detained, which makes us think there was a superior order to remove all these shameless people from the case.

"But we believed in the justice of our country. We hired a lawyer and pushed for an investigation. Then, in April 2003, they killed another brother of mine at the entrance to our farm and before [the eyes of] his mother, his wife, his four-year-old son and his nephew.

"From the investigations we knew that we were dealing with groups of [paramilitary] caciques (bosses) that act in accordance with the state…. And I say this because one year after the death of my second brother, they capture one of these caciques. They capture him in 2004 and in 2006, having been threatened, our lawyer has to abandon the case.

"In 2000 we moved from where we had lived to another city, changed our telephone lines, etcetera, due to the threats. When they killed my other brother in 2003 we had to leave in a national displacement to another region of Colombia. In 2004 we returned because they told us there was a judgment [in the case].

"Around this time another brother of mine, due to the same conditions as the rest of us, fled to Ecuador with his family and later the UN High Commission for Refugees [UNHCR] resettled him in the US. The rest of us didn’t go because we thought we could sustain ourselves in our country. But around the beginning of 2005 another threat arrived. It came in my email. I was a national leader in Colombia, fighting for the rights of the displaced. And when we saw the threat, we had no other option than to follow the footsteps of my brother and come to Ecuador."

"International agreement? But we are a sovereign nation!"

If constantly fleeing from one city to another due to threats weren’t bad enough, once Colombians come to Ecuador and try to truly distance themselves from the conflict, the majority are denied official refugee status and left trapped and undocumented in a foreign country. Ecuador only approved 14,300 out of 45,231 asylum requests between 2000 and 2006.

Despite the fact that Rolando’s brother was awarded asylum in Ecuador and even resettled in the US—a service reserved only for the most pressing cases—when Rolando and his extended family arrived and presented the same documentation, they were denied.

"You come here to Ecuador, where they use the same declaration and they say no", he says. "’No, and I have sovereignty,’ is what they told us."

Rolando tells me all this as he sits behind his desk in Quito. It has just stopped hailing (a bizarre but frequent event in the Ecuadorian Andes) and he nibbles on a piece of chicken another undocumented refugee woman has given us. Because Ecuadorian law forbids solicitants of refugee status from working (the solicitation process commonly lasts at least six months) and because undocumented refugees are obliged to purchase a labor visa for $1000 if they want to legally work, Rolando doesn’t make much money. His lunches are frequently comprised of a bowl of soup or a couple cigarettes, and he considers himself lucky.

"Go to the market—you’ll see refugee women and their children begging for rotten tomatoes."

The Asylum Lottery: Divide, Quiz and Conquer

Ask three different people to define "a refugee" and how many of them there are in Ecuador, and you’ll get three different answers. Most agree that the 1951 Convention and the Declaration of Cartagena amply defines legitimate reasons for seeking asylum. But certain civil society organizations which aren’t allied with the UNHCR will tell you that anyone coming into Ecuador for these reasons is a refugee, regardless of whether they’ve officially received this status or not. As for how many there are, it’s anyone’s guess since the great majority of de facto refugees don’t solicit official asylum for fear or divulging their personal information and being tracked down once again. There are currently an estimated quarter-million de facto refugees in Ecuador.

Talk to the UNHCR and its partner organizations and they’ll offer the same estimate of 250,000, but they limit "refugees" to those conferred official status by the government and those de facto refugees who have not yet solicited (although they are pressured to do so immediately). As for those who have been denied refugee status, according to Xavier Orellana, spokesman for the UNHCR in Ecuador, "they fall outside our mandate." So, according to the UNHCR, there are 14,300 refugees in Ecuador and a much larger "invisible population" who cannot fully take advantage of their refugee rights until they receive official refugee status.

Talk to people in the Office of Refugees, the Ecuadorian bureau which handles refuge requests, and there exist 14,300 refugees in Ecuador, no more and no less. According to the state, only a sovereign nation has the right to decide who can consider themselves a refugee and who cannot. As a result, Ecuador says that only 5.7% of those 250,000 people who have fled Colombia due to persecution, violence and the violation of their human rights there can consider themselves refugees.

The interview process is the sieve used by the government to separate a quarter-million de facto refugees into those with official refugee visas and soon-to-be undocumented, unofficial refugees. The latter, after being informed of their negation, are given 30 days to either resolve their immigration status (read, buy a $1000 labor visa, marry an Ecuadorian or have a child in Ecuador) or leave the country. Since returning to Colombia is a fatal risk for many, the only option is to remain in Ecuador undocumented.

The first step in the legal-lottery of obtaining a refugee visa is a trip to the Office of Refugees, part of the Ecuadorian Ministry of Exterior Relations. The Office is in a tacky-looking building that sits above a bustling consumer electronics department store. Built on shaky foundations, you wonder whether the nearby volcano, Pichincha, is erupting each time a truck drives past on the avenue below.

Inside, the asylum applicant registers her information into a database, furnishes the necessary documents, is photographed and provides a signature. Needless to say, all this documentation turns many refugees away. Michel, who was forced to leave Colombia after her brother reported on collaboration between the Colombian military and paramilitaries, says that, "I don’t have refugee documents because I don’t dare to recount my problem. I don’t want them to try and locate my brother through me, or for my children to be endangered. That’s why I’ve never solicited asylum." A mere five hours in bus from the Colombian border, many refugees in Quito don’t feel sufficiently distanced from their problems.

For those who choose to undergo the interview process, an Office of Refugees functionary interviews family members individually. One such functionary explains, "What we try and do is extract all the information possible so that we can make a recommendation based on [legal] criteria to the eligibility commission which makes a decision concerning the request." This "extracted" (sacado) information is meant to be complimented with objective information.

However, the very notion of objective information concerning the Colombian conflict is a naïve fantasy. First, the Colombian consulate denies that Colombians have any grounds for soliciting asylum in Ecuador. One functionary of the Office of Refugees told me, "Sometimes we just need a birth certificate for the kids or a marriage certificate in order to regularize someone’s situation. And the consulate doesn’t even give us access to basic documentation, to someone’s identity. Imagine—the cooperation we get from Colombia is zero."

Secondly, most displacement originally happens in Colombia’s rural expanses and urban ghettos, which totally lack the police presence necessary to document it. As with Michel’s case, merely reporting injustices frequently causes more persecution. Lastly, many refugees are forced to gather up their belongings in a matter of hours or minutes and flee for their lives—making it nearly impossible to collect any type of records or evidence.

"We left of ham business, we left our animals, we left everything," said Andrea. "When you plan ahead you bring money, but when you do it [flee] from one day to the next, you leave everything."

Reacting to this lack of documentation and "objective information," the interview turns a sadistic, high-stakes quiz show where the applicant’s fate depends on their ability to coherently recount the minutiae of their displacement, despite the effects this trauma has on their memory.

Esperanza recounts that, "One day, I asked the person attending me if the interview was always like this, because he was asking me for my national ID [cédula] number and things like that. So I told him ‘Why do you ask me so many times?,’ and he said it was for security, to see if someone is lying or not." Functionaries use the same method when they individually interview family members, making sure they are totally in accordance regarding places, names and dates.

Needless to say, this strategy is extremely effective in limiting the number of applicants who actually receive asylum. Only one in three applicants receives refugee status, and it is estimated that only one in five of all de facto refugees even apply for refugee status. Those denied status are allowed an appeal, but, as no specific reason for their denial is given, organizing an effective appeal is impossible.

The result: more than two hundred thousand refugees forced into the informal sector, forced to pay off police to prevent being deported back to a country where they are being pursued, and who can’t denounce employers who rob them and educators who deny their children schooling. They are truly refugees without refuge.

Towards a broad normalization of refugees

To remedy this situation, in February 2007, newly elected President Correa, along with his Ministers of Government and Exterior Relations announced their willingness to carry out a general normalization of Colombian refugees. Despite the brief euphoria of refugees and attempts by civil society to organize a concrete plan for normalization, this plan has never become more than a hypothetical intention.

This stagnation is partly due to the current administration’s investment of nearly all its political capital into the creation of a new Constitution, but it also with a low-intensity bureaucratic revolt coming from the Office of Refugees. This Office, which would be a major player in such a normalization process, contradicted their superiors in asserting that their ideas were legally infeasible.

"We can’t just give refugee treatment to whoever," said one functionary from the Office of Refugees. "We must carry out a very detailed analysis to see if the person brings together the necessary elements in order to give them asylum."

Bureaucrats assert the overriding necessity of an individualized interview process, despite the fact that, until the year 2000, all refugees were officially recognized prima facie (that is, without undergoing an eligibility process) and even though the Cartagena Declaration establishes generalized causes for the displacement of refugees.4

This obstruction of a massive normalization of refugees is due in large part to the tendency of legally trained functionaries in the Office of Refugees to allow legal concerns to overshadow humanitarian ones. They all paid lip service, many times very convincingly, to their commitment to aid refugees.

Yet the current refugee situation in Ecuador is anything but humanitarian. The small minority of de facto refugees with official status lack real access to their rights and the majority of undocumented refugees don’t even have recognized formal rights.

The current situation resembles the neoliberal model: there is a free flow of trade and capital between Ecuador and Colombia, while human migration is restricted. If President Correa and the Ecuadorian social movements that support him truly wish to emerge from the "long, sorrowful night of neoliberalism," they must put human rights first, starting with a massive normalization of Colombian refugees.

Stuart Schussler was a Fulbright scholar in Ecuador, where he worked with refugees in Quito. He was also a human rights observer with the Intag Solidarity Network in Intag, Ecuador, where peasant ecologists fight to protect their land from open-pit copper mining. He can be reached at stuartcan4(at)yahoo(dot)com.


1 For the numbers, go here and here (pdf).

2 Leech, Garry (2002). Killing Peace: Colombia’s Conflict and the Failure of US Intervention. Information Network of Americas. pp.63-64.

3 "Parapolitics" refers to the 39 Colombian Congress members who are currently under investigation for having ties with paramilitary groups. Go here for the current list.

4 This document, which forms the core of refugee law in Ecuador along with the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, defines refugees as "persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order."