Ecuadoran Reporter Unmasks Dangerous Child Trafficking Trends

Oct 282014
  • The grave of Jhoselín Noemí Álvarez Quillay in El Tambo, province of Cañar (Ecuador)

In March, an eight-year-old girl from Ecuador traveled with a trafficker, or “coyote,” who promised to reunite her with her parents in the United States. But while attempting to illegally cross the border, her trafficker was arrested. The girl, Jhoselín Noemí Álvarez Quillay, was sent to a shelter. There, 33 days after leaving her home in Ecuador, she was found dead by hanging.

The incident, which is still being investigated, set off a media firestorm and a wave of suspicion.

“I knew it wasn’t an isolated case,” said Ecuadoran investigative and data journalist Daniela Aguilar, and “that many--dozens of--kids are traveling these routes, in great danger.”

In April, in hopes of publishing a story about child trafficking from Ecuador to the U.S., Aguilar joined an online course sponsored by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and Connectas. The course for journalists from Ecuador, México, Nicaragua and Paraguay focused on research techniques, digital tools, data journalism and physical and cyber security protocols, as part of the multi-year Investigative Reporting Initiative in the Americas 2013-2017 program. With support from veteran journalist Alma Delia Fuentes and data researcher Sol Lauria, Aguilar analyzed a range of previously unexplored data sources. Most notably, she discovered that the air route from Ecuador to Honduras was a black hole for Ecuadoran children and teenagers trafficked to the U.S. in recent years. Between 2007 and 2013, records showed that over 5,000 teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 left Ecuador for Honduras and never returned.

After completion of the workshop, Aguilar’s story, Tráfico de niños: de Ecuador a EEUU, pasando por el Infierno (Child Trafficking: From Ecuador to the U.S. via Hell), was published in July as an in-depth look at the phenomenon as well as the huge immigration wave from Ecuador to Honduras. Thanks to the support of the program, Aguilar was able to use new tools, such as Tableau Public, to display migration data. It was one of the first stories on a new Ecuadoran independent media site, founded by Aguilar, called La Historia (“The Story”).

The story was picked up by media across the country, inspiring deeper coverage on television and in print. In response, government officials took action. In September, the government of Ecuador launched the “Say No To Risky Migration” campaign through its embassy to the United States.

In October, Ecuador’s National Assembly voted in favor of additional support for the campaign, vowing “to achieve greater public awareness, especially in provinces with the highest incidence, in order to prevent children and teenagers from being exposed to risk.” The assembly also requested that the national Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility publish a report on the number of Ecuadoran children and adolescents held in shelters or hostels on the U.S. border, the conditions of these shelters and what action has been taken to defend their rights.

Here, watch Aguilar talk about the process of reporting the story and the impact it has had on Ecuador:

This video was produced, edited and translated by Jessica Weiss.