A new barrier to Latin American integration has emerged in northern Chile. People who wish to reach this southern nation are increasingly confronted by xenophobia, abuse of authority and a growing mafia of “coyotes” (a slang term for human smugglers). The harshest controls are especially applied to travelers from the Colombian Pacific, an area with one of the largest amounts of displacement from violence and economic inequality.
Last September 22, in front of a group of 200 US business people in Manhattan, the presidents of Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru presented the “Pacific Alliance” (Alianza del Pacifico). The leaders talked about the good conditions their economies are in, the advantages of having a market with 200 million people, and that this was an inclusive treaty, open to the world.
The presidents of Peru, Chile, Mexico and Colombia celebrating economic intergration through the Pacific Alliance
Thousands of kilometers from that room, in Chacalluta and Colchane, the Chilean border crossings that face Peru and Bolivia respectively, what is heard by the more than 8,000 Colombians who hope to enter the country every year is much different:
“Pablo Escobar’s family won’t be going to Chile.”
“All Colombians are whores or drug traffickers.”
“They are coming here to steal.”
Immigrants face these insults on a daily basis. After traveling thousands of kilometers they find the entrance to Chile blocked at the discretion of the country’s border agents. They are poor travelers, the majority of whom are fleeing mafia violence in Colombia and poverty in the Valle del Cauca deparmtent, particularly the port city of Buenaventura, where it is now common to speak of the “new South America”: Antofagasta, the primary mining city in northern Chile.
For this report, a team lead by Chilean daily newspaper El Mercurio and Latin American news platform CONNECTAS, in alliance with Colombian news portal Agenda Propia, Peruvian news site Utero.Pe and VICE Colombia, dove into a reality that is still widely ignored by Latin American integration efforts. The aim of the report was to reveal a migration route plagued with dangerous setbacks and frustrations. The exploitation and theft, the coyote and human trafficking networks, the large illegal treks through the desert, and the growing racism and xenophobia that awaits them at their final destination, is the daily bread of those who had believed that the dream of integration would also translate into opportunities for those who need them the most.
Buenaventura is the epicenter of migration from the north to the south of the continent. A port which Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos christened “the capital of the Pacific Alliance.”
“We normally only have running water four hours a day here. There’s no garbage dump and no focus on job creation by businesses,” Buenaventura Council President Edwing Janes Patiño complained.
This is just a small example of the suffering endured by this city of 380,000 inhabitants, through which passes 60 percent of Colombia’s foreign trade and some 15 million tons of merchandise every year.
SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles
At this port the levels of poverty, illiteracy and lack of education far exceed the national average. Its many streets and neighborhoods were built by Afro-Colombians as stilt shacks over the sea, and have been the recent scene of one of the bloodiest wars unleashed by drug traffickers. The port is a major route for drugs through the Colombian Pacific and an entry for narcotics production materials.
Extortion has become the law of the land in Buenaventura, which is determined by the invisible borders drawn by armed street gangs between each neighborhood. If broken, these laws come with a death penalty, often at the hands of butchers who have made dismembered bodies a frequent headline for local newspapers.
Between January 2013 and September of this year, 28 people were dismembered in the city. Like many cases they were all carried out at places which have come to be known as “chop houses.” This is how fear has taken root. Unemployment is constant. For these reasons, it has become common to leave it all behind: 13,000 Buenaventura citizens have already left this year.
A popular reaggeton song in Buenaventura sheds light on this option many have chosen to take:
“A friend of mine got tired of the routine. Looking for work that’s not there. She grabbed her passport and left for Chile.”
But heading to Chile is a long and uncertain trip. Beginning in Tumaco, Cali and other cities and municipalities in southwestern Colombia, it includes 2,800 kilometers of Peruvian and Ecuadorian roads. These bus trips are legal with an Andean migration card, but are complicated at the border crossings of Chacalluta and Colchane, which are located on the borders of Peru and Bolivia, respectively.
For the border agents, being Colombian is synonymous with criminality. The stereotype has been fed by the high number of those employed in brothels and bars exclusive to men, and the sporadic drug trafficking news stories, linked in both cases to Colombians. For example, in September Fanny Grueso Bonilla, alias “La Chily,” was captured in Santiago, Chile. La Chily was sought by Colombian authorities for alleged involvement with criminal network the Urabeños as well as being the owner of an infamous “chop house.”
But the restrictions go further. According to multiple testimonies recorded during this report, skin color is increasingly becoming a factor in rejecting someone at this tri-border region. Authorities deny this. Authorities at both border crossings said “the most frequent reason for rejecting someone is expired identification documents, inability to show economic solvency to pay for their stay in the country or lying about their real intentions for entering Chile.” However civil society organizations that assist immigrants say that entry into the country depends exclusively on the will of the official at the window, protected by a controversial law that grants them “discretion.”
Caught Between Xenophobia and Coyotes
Antofagasta is the primary destination in northern Chile, a city built by immigration. Nestled in the desert, its streets smell of sand from the surrounding vastness, and the sea from which mining ports export material from one of the world’s largest copper reserves.
According to official figures, in less that a decade more than 10,000 Colombians have reached the city, and unofficial sources put it at 15,000, or almost five percent of Antofagasta’s population. Colombian migrants has noted for their entreprenuerial spirit, as well as possessing valuable people skills for jobs in customer service.
But at the same time, this lively spirit can overwhelm reserved Chileans, and along with the violence and insecurity attributed to this immigration, differences have begun to emerge among the locals.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Chile
An event etched in memories and that came to represent the tension around the Colombian exodus occurred in October 2013. After Colombia and Chile tied with three goals apiece during the World Cup elimination round, fans of both teams faced off with sticks and stones in the streets of Antofagasta. An unthinkable event in the peaceful city.
Two weeks later a small group of locals tried to hold an anti-Colombian immigration march. During a meeting, the anger they expressed about what happened was rife with xenophobia and racism.
The proclamations extolled by the few attendees against Colombians were picked up by national media. “We want the black criminals, the prostitutes to go. The Colombians who don’t contribute need to leave.” “A Colombian woman stole my husband,” were some of the quotes in a report by El Mercurio’s local paper.
One of the frequent arguments for not liking Colombians is their alleged links to organized crime and drug trafficking. Although the official statistics of the Chilean Public Defender’s Office show that 96 percent of crimes in the Antofagasta region are committed by national citizens, a significant portion of the population continues to blame the recent arrivals for a “greater sense of insecurity.” This collective image is reinforced every time a Colombian is arrested on drug charges.
While many Colombians in Chile have to deal with prejudice, many others remain stuck in Tacna, Peru. There’s no other place on the border more emblematic of their odyssey than a little plaza outside the transport terminal, that has come to be called “The Wailing Wall.” Everyday there you can find a handful of Colombians who have been rejected after trying to enter Chile through the border crossing Chacalluta.
Any day of the week, people like James Murillo can be found roaming around “The Wall.” He’s a tall, black and well built Colombian who at the time of this report had spent three day without being able to enter Chile. James was threatened out of Buenaventura, his family was robbed of their things, and a relative of his girlfriend — who was waiting for him in Chile — was killed in Cali.
James had a displaced persons’ card issued by the Colombian government, but had spent the last three nights sleeping on the ground, without a penny in his pocket, afraid the Chilean agents would deny him entry and leave him separated from his family. A common scene at this border town in Peru.
According to immigration authorities, every day at least 15 Colombians try to legally cross the Chilean border without success. At the Chacalluta border crossing alone during the first nine months of 2015 some 2,365 Colombians had been turned back.
This is not an isolated case. According to the Chilean Investigative Police (PDI by their Spanish initials), last year border officials denied entry to 12,655 foreigners, almost half of whom were Colombians.
The practice has become so common that the term “rebound” is frequently used on the borders with Peru and Bolivia to refer to all those who, for lack of paperwork or the official on duty, end up stuck mid-journey, with nothing in their pockets.
Various Chilean civil society organizations have followed these cases, including the National Human Rights Institute (INDH by its Spanish initials). At Chile’s border crossings “some of the State agents are creating xenophobic situations,” said INDH Director Lorena Fries.
During an INDH visit to Colchane in 2013 immigrants complained that “people from the Chilean Investigative Police threw their passports and insulted them with racial epithets,” Fries added.
A map of the border crossings Colombians face as they attempt to enter Chile
Seeing less of a chance of entering through the Peruvian border, rebounded Colombians try their luck through Pisiga, Bolivia, only to be rejected again at the discretion of border agents.
As a result, what should be a direct bus trip from Colombia to Chile can be suddenly interrupted without warning. Homeless, the Colombians have nowhere else to go except transit houses like those of the Sisters of Charity, which was founded three years ago in the Altiplano city of Pisiga.
According to Sister Margarita Oyarzo, the religious Chilean who currently administers the house, between January and September some 800 people passed through the house, all of whom were Colombian. “Our job is to gather them and orient them. We tell them to return to their country if they’ve been rebounded, that it’s better than crossing illegally, because if they go that way they’ll have problems in Chile. But many say they’ve been left with no money and can’t return home, and they prefer to cross illegally.”
Many testimonies gathered in Tacna and Pisiga note the surge in coyote and human trafficking networks growing around rebound populations. Outside of transport terminals, where people arrive after being rejected, immigrants are approached by people who assure them passage through the desert for anywhere from $60 to $300.
The coyotes, also known as “haulers,” also offer fake documents with the promise of entry. Nevertheless, as one young Colombian named Jesus said, “they ask for $300, and you believe them and pay them and later get rebounded at the border. You try again to cross over but the coyote won’t take you for the money that’s left. There’s nothing you can do.”
The growing Colombian migration to Chile has sparked an intense national debate on current migration policy, based on the Immigration Act of 1975, that for many contains an outdated view of immigration rooted in national security concepts from the Cold War era.
The few reforms to the Immigration Act that have been suggested have received criticism from organizations like Global Citizen. Its director, Marcela Correa, said that the changes the government made in the past were only “towards economic ends and not social . . . The immigrant is seen as manual labor and not as a person.”
This appears to be Chilean society’s big dilemma: How will the country deal with immigrants? A survey carried out in Antofagasta in August reveals the complexity of the public discussion. While 50.1 percent of Antofagasta residents do not agree with immigration, 59.4 percent recognize that immigrants support the growth and development of Chile.
Nevertheless, beyond the internal debate, this problem is absent from the many integration talks between the presidents of Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico, who lead the Pacific Alliance. It’s not a minor issue. These restrictions, aggravated by the growing segregation by origin or skin color, can be overturned by better initiatives. Addressing these problems with special attention, and making them a priority in the integration agenda from now on, would help so that changes that are made now will in fact translate into opportunities for those who need them the most.