Latin America & Caribbean

Ecuador poverty drives migrants north

An Ecuadorean teenager survived a shocking massacre of 72 migrants near the US-Mexican border last month. As the BBC's Irene Caselli finds out, the tiny village he left behind remains mired in poverty, and is now living in fear of reprisals.

Image caption Even Freddy's sister is not allowed to know where he is

After a trip of almost two months, Freddy was about to make it to his final destination - the US. But in the state of Tamaulipas, some 150km (90 miles) before arriving in Texas, things took a violent turn.

Members of the powerful drug cartel known as Los Zetas allegedly stopped Freddy and dozens of other illegal migrants and demanded that they become drug mules. When the migrants refused, the traffickers shot them all.

Freddy managed to escape. He walked 22km (13 miles) with a bullet wound in his neck until he reached a police checkpoint, where he alerted authorities about the massacre.

The bodies of 72 migrants from Central and South America were later found. Freddy, one of only three people thought to have survived the massacre, was put under police protection.

Most of his family thought he had moved to somewhere else in Ecuador. So when they saw Freddy's face on local TV news on 26 August, they were shocked.

"On the news it looked like he was dead," says Freddy's older sister. "I fainted and hit my head, and I don't remember what happened next."

Her eyes tear up as she says that her brother left to help the family.

"There was never enough money, we are poor here, very poor," she says.

Freddy had been trying to reach his parents, who had migrated to the US years before and currently live in New Jersey.

Only his 17-year-old pregnant wife knew about his decision. Freddy left, paying $15,000 to local coyotes, or smugglers, in order to make the trip.

One-room shack

His odyssey, like his parents years before, started in a remote dusty village that resembles a construction site, with pigs and stray dogs loose in the streets.

Image caption The village provides a steady stream of migrants to the north

The rural community of about 600 people has one of the highest migration rates in the country. There are no shops; to buy groceries, people have to travel 40 minutes on a dirt road to the closest town.

The population is mainly indigenous and the local language is spoken more than Spanish. Many people leave for the US and, if they make it, they send money home to build US-style mansions that are often left abandoned.

Most of the children in the village have at least one parent abroad.

Freddy's father left six years ago, his mother followed four years later, leaving Freddy in charge of five siblings at a very young age with debts to pay and little work available in town.

Freddy was a father figure for the whole family. He took care of his wife, his older sister and her two daughters, and of another four younger siblings. They all lived together with Freddy's grandmother in one room in an adobe shack.

But a couple of months ago, just before he turned 18, he decided to try his luck and follow his parents to the US.

Rumours spread

Shortly after the attack in Mexico, Freddy asked to return to Ecuador, where he is now under police protection with his wife at an undisclosed location.

Image caption Two police officers have been deployed to protect the village

Not even his older sister has managed to talk to Freddy directly.

"They won't let me know where he is right now," she says. "I am worried about how he is. I cry, and I'm not eating that much any more."

Witnesses or survivors to major crimes in Mexico are often hunted down later and killed. And relatives of Freddy, who do not want their identities revealed, are also worried about revenge from the coyotes.

Two policemen now roam the unpaved roads of the village to protect the family members, but everyone in town seems worried.

"We're afraid when we see police here, the town is usually very quiet," says the parish priest.

Rumours have spread, and many villagers are afraid that the drug traffickers could bomb the town overnight.

As a solution, a local official says the main road that leads to the town is closed overnight.

"Suspicious cars could come in," he says. "Our mission is to make the inhabitants of the village feel calm."

'Ignorance and desperation'

Another local official says there is a lack of education in the area which people like the coyotes take advantage of, and they are never prosecuted.

Image caption The Mexico massacre has deeply affected many communities in Latin America

The Ecuadorean government has a programme to fight against people smugglers, but it remains a huge issue in the area.

"We know names of many people involved in this traffic," he says.

"They take advantage of poverty, humility and ignorance.

"Out of ignorance and desperation, people pay out amounts of money that not even in a lifetime will be able to pay back."

While Freddy's miraculous escape might be a wake-up call for other people in village, for Freddy and his family the reality is bittersweet.

Freddy has been lucky enough to survive and he can count on police protection for now - but who will cover his debt with the coyotes? And who will put food on his family's table?

As people say here, suerte o muerte - luck or death. Freddy managed to escape death, but the poverty he had fled from is more present than ever.

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