Terrorism, as the United States has learned at a high cost in recent years, comes in many forms and from unexpected sources. The government of Ecuador has once again crossed the line between irresponsible policies and ideologically driven actions that have created a serious security problem not only for its citizens but also for the entire Western Hemisphere. The disarray created in Ecuador’s immigration policy has permitted transnational criminal organizations and terrorist groups — possibly including al Qaeda — to potentially use the country as a base of operations with the ultimate objective of harming the United States.
In June of 2008, the Ecuadorian government opened its borders to foreigners and ended visa requirements to enter its territory. This opened the floodgates to nationals from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (e.g., Afghanistan, China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Kenya, Nigeria, Cuba, Pakistan, and Somalia). For example, according to statistics of its own National Immigration Office, in 2006 (before the policy change) there were 92 entries of Pakistani citizens, by 2008 were already 178 and in 2010, 518. This is an increase of 550 percent in 4 years. More significantly, just between 2008 and 2010 an estimated 60,000 Cubans entered Ecuador, according to intelligence sources.
Records shows that large numbers of these immigrants enter to obtain Ecuadorian nationality by naturalization and thus be able to travel freely throughout Latin America and eventually to the United States without arousing suspicion because of their original nationalities. The routes by which they enter the Americas generally include a first stop in Cuba or Venezuela, countries with highly subjective immigration controls. Two routes that are used repeatedly are Pakistan/Afghanistan-Iran-Venezuela-Ecuador, and Somalia-Dubai-Russia-Cuba-Ecuador.
According to U.S. diplomatic cables, Ecuadorian authorities were alerted in 2009 by various international intelligence agencies about this deception. However, it was not until mid-2010 when they began to again administer their immigration policies. Thereafter, the Ecuadorian government somewhat modified its visa policy for nationals of certain countries that were considered the riskiest.
Nevertheless, some reports suggest that despite this change, these immigrant groups have developed a criminal infrastructure of sufficient magnitude to keep functioning independently. To bypass the stricter immigration controls, criminal gangs have specialized in forging travel documents, visas, birth certificates, and fake residency permits that ultimately lead to illegally obtaining an Ecuadorian passport. Documents are not difficult to obtain because the Mafiosi suborn government administrators including civil registry officials, judges, and other government officials.
Of particular concern to U.S. security is the case of nationals of third countries who enter Ecuador with passports issued by Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, countries for which Ecuador still does not require visas.
It is noteworthy that by Executive Order No. 1065 signed by President Correa on February 16, 2012, Ecuador has substantially eased the process of naturalization of foreign citizens. This resolution orders the granting of letters of naturalization to people who had provided "relevant services" to Ecuador and have resided for more than two years in the country, opening the door for virtually anyone to become a naturalized Ecuadorian and obtain a passport.
The danger these criminal networks pose is illustrated by two examples, among many: In 2011 an investigation was conducted by the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) attaché in Quito, Ecuador, the HIS office in Atlanta, the Miami division of the FBI and the Ecuadorian National Police. The operation led to the arrest of Irfan Ul Haq, a Pakistani citizen who according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) was conducting a "human smuggling operation in Quito, Ecuador, that attempted to smuggle an individual they believed to be a member of the TTP from Pakistan (Tehrik-e Taliban) into the United States." The TTP was designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department on Sept. 1, 2010.
A second case, which resulted in the arrest of Yaee Dawit, alias Jack Flora, probably the most important human trafficker in Africa and linked to different cells of al-Qaeda in East Africa, illustrates the good work of international cooperation, but also the importance that Ecuadorian cities have acquired as "hubs" for terrorists and transnational criminals.
These cases not only illuminate the crime of human trafficking, but they also show how they continuously finance other terrorist and criminal activities. Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, of the Criminal Division, describes these criminals as follows: "For financial profit, they [were] willing to jeopardize the safety and security of the American people. Human smuggling operations pose a serious risk to our national security, and we will continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners at home and abroad to combat this dangerous threat."
While there is no evidence to show that the Correa government established the policy of "open borders" in an effort to attract criminal organizations, that has been the result. On the other hand, there is no evidence of Correa wanting to stem the flow. These examples show how Rafael Correa’s Ecuador is becoming a failed state, hosting all sorts of dangerous actors. They also help to understand the context in which various financial, commercial, and energy agreements are being developed by Ecuador with the governments of Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela. While many of the agreements are not yet completed, they serve as "government-authorized illicit tunnels" through which anything and anyone can pass, from terrorists and drugs to money and arms. The time has come to close these tunnels.
Otto J. Reich is president of the consulting firm Otto Reich & Associates LLC. He is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Twitter: @ottoreich
Ezequiel Vázquez Ger is an associate at Otto Reich Associates LLC and collaborates with the non-profit organization The Americas Forum. Twitter: @ezequielvazquez