QUITO, Ecuador — The coyote does not like his job. It is not nice being a people-smuggler, he says, but he is quick to add that Ecuador has no future, and for $8,000 he can give you one in the United States.
"The fee includes the bribe for the gringos in immigration. We get a Mexican to do that. No one can get you straight from South America into the United States; first you get to Central America and then we hand you over to the Mexicans," Carlos the coyote said, as he sipped a beer in a downtown bar in Ecuador's down-at-the-heels capital Quito, high in the Andes.
"Coyote" is the nickname for those who spirit Latin Americans across the guarded borders of the United States.
Carlos, who prefers his surname remain unknown, estimates that 200 Ecuadorians slip across the U.S. border every week, part of a growing human flood from the beautiful but chaotic country in the northwest corner of South America.
The exodus is of enormous proportions. Official figures show that 57,000 people abandoned the country of 12 million in the first three months of this year alone. Of those, 22,000 headed for Spain and 18,000 chose the United States.
Many of them, especially those destined for Spain, enter on tourist visas and then seek work illegally, hoping to get more permanent visas later. Others put themselves in the hands of people like Carlos to get them into the United States.
"It makes me sad to be a coyote. It's not a nice thing, but I am consoled when I think that I offer these people a chance of better times. Leaving this country is their only option. Ecuador has no future," Carlos said, taking a long drink of beer.
He charges $8,000 — a lot of money in a country where the minimum monthly wage is about $30. The fee covers bribes, forged documents, transportation and food.
"We start in Quito or Guayaquil. Then you take a plane to Central America, to Honduras, Nicaragua or Guatemala, depending on how closely the authorities are keeping an eye on things in the different countries," he said.
"From Central America you go by sea to Mexico, and then it's two days by land to the border with the United States."
Other coyotes, less scrupulous perhaps than the genial Carlos, entrust their passengers to banana boats where they are often found dead surrounded by fruit in the refrigerated holds.
In recent years, everything seems to have gone wrong for Ecuador, a usually peaceful, picturesque country where swampy mangroves line the tropical coast beneath the soaring mountains of the interior.
Seventy percent of its people are poor, and they are getting poorer. The economy contracted by more than 7 percent in 1999.
A corrupt and squabbling Congress means the government is seldom able to take bold measures. Indians marched into Quito in January to protest desperate plans to adopt the U.S. dollar as the national currency and, with the help of some of the army, they overthrew elected President Jamil Mahuad.
Last year, those lucky enough to have bank accounts found their savings frozen by government order.
And, if that were not bad enough, Guagua Pichincha, one of nine active volcanoes that surround Quito, went into slow eruption, threatening a major disaster at any moment.
Tears are shed every day at Ecuador's international airports as families say goodbye to relatives who can stand it no longer and have chosen to emigrate.
"I'm sad that my daughter is going, but she has no alternative. It's the only way she can get work," said Dolores Morales, a 56-year old grandmother, as she dried her eyes at Quito's international airport.
"She had a job in a factory here and her wages went nowhere. Now she's a live-in maid in Spain and she has enough to save and to help out her father and me," Morales said.
Two million Ecuadorians older than 18 now live abroad, according to government figures.
And business is booming for Carlos.
"Just 15 years ago there was just one coyote organization in Ecuador. Now there are more than 25, with contacts in Central America and Mexico," he said, offering a reporter a $500 commission for every new client he could bring him.