LAGO AGRIO, Ecuador—Hitler was behind the wheel, racing through a blur of jungle toward Ecuador’s border with Colombia. Only when an immigration officer in green fatigues hurried out from a checkpoint, yelling, did Hitler pump the brakes. The policeman asked if we wanted our passports stamped, and all four of us in the truck—an American, a Dane, a Colombian, and an Ecuadorian—declined. With that, the official waved goodbye and we lurched onward to Colombia.
The river that marks the border between the countries is anything but an impassable boundary. Along its length are dozens of illicit crossings, and the movement of people—and problems—from one bank to the other is a fact of daily life. From a bridge, I could see, on the Colombian side, a black plume of smoke rising from an oil pipeline that FARC rebels had reportedly bombed the previous day. On the Ecuadorian side was a ghost town of ramshackle sheds that those same guerrillas were known to rent for a few hours of partying.
Like the nearby Andes, this stretch of the Amazon has long been a location where reality does not correspond to political geography. When Hitler, a driver by trade and one of 12 sons named (apparently at random) after leaders from the Bible and world history, moved to the nearby city of Lago Agrio as a child, his father knew the area as a place where the authorities sent convicts from the country’s overcrowded jails to be released downriver into the jungle. In the 1950s, missionaries had come to ‘civilize’ Indians who had long lived in the region, and the oilmen followed soon after. As William Langewiesche wrote in Vanity Fair, Ecuador’s government at the time was “an incompetent military regime in a corrupt country so dysfunctional that in the Amazon it existed purely as fiction—a cartographic boast without viable airports or roads, enclosed by unmarked boundaries that were in dispute, where the indigenous people were not even recognized as full citizens.”
Ecuador is a very different place today. But in recent years, inspired by a vision of a pre-modern world with more freedom to wander, the country has been experimenting with making political boundaries more flexible. It’s one of the world’s boldest contemporary efforts to reinvent human migration. Is it working?
In 2008, Ecuador’s National Assembly approved a new constitution that recognizes unfettered mobility across borders as a basic human right, advocating “the principle of universal citizenship, the free movement of all inhabitants of the planet, and the progressive extinction of the status of alien or foreigner as an element to transform the unequal relations between countries, especially those between North and South."
Blanca Vega, of the government's Ombudsman’s office, described the underlying principle as a return to an indigenous notion of well-being that recognizes the rights of people (regardless of immigration status) and the environment, not just the value of material progress. “We have to return to this indigenous concept in order to survive,” she told me in her office in the capital, Quito, last summer. Just as the international community has come to recognize the need for environmental preservation, she explained, so too will it inevitably see the wisdom of a world without borders. “It will happen in the future,” she said. “It has to happen.”
When the constitution came into force in 2008, Ecuador’s newly elected president, Rafael Correa, celebrated the measure in bold terms, declaring “a campaign to dismantle that 20th-century invention of passports and visas.” It was an idea with political currency in a country of 15 million where roughly 10 percent of its citizens had departed, many since the beginning of a 1999 financial crisis, and were living abroad, often without documents. The next step was supposed to be a law on “human mobility” that would establish refugee and immigration policies, bringing legal realities in line with the language of the new constitution.
This has yet to materialize. But in its place, Correa did oversee a raft of changes that dramatically loosened immigration standards. First, in June of 2008, he announced the abolition of visa requirements so that anyone could enter Ecuador for up to 90 days. But rather than encourage reciprocity from other countries, as expected, the measure unintentionally benefited human smugglers. By December of that year, almost 12,000 Chinese had entered Ecuador—roughly six times the volume during the first half of the year. Many were headed to the U.S. via human-smuggling networks.
“Ecuador is causing instability for all America,” Costa Rica’s immigration chief told a U.S. official at the time, according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. In addition to the Chinese migrants, the country witnessed an increase in immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. As a result, Ecuador eventually reinstated visa requirements for citizens from 10 countries who were “abusing the system,” Vega said.
The visa measure made “it easier for human trafficking because it didn't come accompanied with adequate policies about security, internal controls, and the like,” said Daniela Salazar, a law professor at the University of San Francisco in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito.
But Salazar is quick to praise the government’s next move. In 2009, teams were dispatched across northern border regions to register Colombians who had overstayed their 90-day window in the country. The five-decade-long conflict in their home country, which began as a political struggle but is today driven by spoils from the drug trade, has internally displaced more than 3 million people. Although the Colombian government is currently engaged in peace talks with the largest rebel group, peace remains a long way off for the civilians trapped in between the sides. A number of those who made it to Ecuador—estimates range from 135,000 to half a million—had fled violence and extortion from leftist guerrillas and former right-wing paramilitary fighters. Many had never come into contact with refugee authorities, while others had waited years for a decision on their asylum request. Suddenly, the government was processing and deciding cases the same day, and refugees were granted asylum in record numbers. Over the course of one year, the total number of recognized refugees ballooned from 20,000 to 45,000, making Ecuador the largest refugee haven in Latin America.