PUERTO MALDONADO — The scene takes place in utter obscurity. Along a deserted dirt road in this small town in western Peru, a group of 11 Haitians walk down the stairs that lead away from several makeshift bedrooms, hastily built above a bar in the outskirts of Puerto Maldonado. And that quick, they all duck into a waiting van.
Such discreet transfers are part of growing illegal immigration in Brazil.
In the car hired by a "coyote," the nickname given to smugglers, the migrants are told to keep the windows shut and covered with sheets. For security reasons, the Peruvian driver argues, it is best that nobody sees them during the journey.
Sitting in the last row, 35-year-old Deny tries to control his nerves, counting down the minutes before the end of his week-long journey from Haiti. In four hours, the 11 will have joined thousands who already entered Brazil via groups who control the global traffic of immigrants along the border.
Every week, some 400 illegal immigrants, most of them from Haiti and Africa, are smuggled into the country, reinforcing this already strong network that has been allowed to grow along the western border of the Amazon — between Peru, Brazil and Bolivia — thanks to endemic corruption and the blessing of part of the Peruvian National Police.
According to official data, more than 25,000 immigrants have made their way into Brazil from this region since 2011. The Interoceanic Highway, which connects the Pacific coast of Peru to the Atlantic coast of Brazil, became the main entry point into the country for illegal immigrants.
Few manage to escape these criminal groups, who can charge up to $4,000 for the journey from Haiti to Brazil. For Haitians, this sum represents months' worth of work for an entire family, who often hope that sending away one of their members will bring them more money in the future.
The practice is similar to the trafficking of immigrants between Mexico and the United States, although it is still far from reaching the same levels of violence.
People like Deny, who leave everything behind in the hope of finding "better days" in Brazil, have no choice but to turn to smugglers. Often, they end up being robbed, extorted and kept in inhumane conditions. Some see their passports confiscated by the smugglers for not paying what they are asked, while there are also reports of women who are forced to pay their debts with their own bodies.
The immigrants say that Puerto Maldonado, 230 kilometers from Brazil, is the most dangerous crossing. With no rights to enjoy and virtually invisible to the eyes of the city's 38,000 inhabitants, the foreigners are kept in small hostels until they reach their destination.
In Puerto Maldonado — Photo: Ivan Mlinaric
Without giving away our real identities, we stayed in one of the establishments used by the "coyotes" and saw immigrants being kept in rooms that can only be described as cells, locked from the outside.
We also witnessed the corrupt behavior of Peruvian police officers who collaborate with the traffickers. After negotiating with the driver and revealing to him that we were reporters, we traveled in the van with Deny and the others until the border town of Assis Brasil, in the state of Acre. On the way there, the driver bribed policemen at two of the four checkpoints.
Because the Haitians and Africans are crossing the country illegally, the police threaten to deport them.
Jeremie Dozina, who after 10 days of traveling reached Brazil from Haiti on May 14, recalls facing a local police chief along the way. "Do what I tell you," he was told. "I can have you sent back or arrested. If you want to continue your journey, you'll have to pay."
Left at the border with no money to eat or to pay for the bus to Rio Branco — located 350 kilometers away, where there is a shelter for immigrants — Dozina says the "coyotes" and the Peruvian police robbed him of some $300.
The journey of the immigrants starts in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where they fly to Ecuador. From the capital of Quito to the Brazilian border, via Peru, they travel more than 3,000 kilometers. For Africans, who started to use the route last year, the journey is the same once they reach Ecuador, after flying from Spain.
Trafficking in Peru has been going on in broad daylight since 2011, with local law enforcement claiming that because no complaints are filed, there are no investigations.
Federal Police officials in Brazil say it is aware of the network and the ways it operates, but cannot do much to stop what happens outside its territory. Police officers, however, informed us that they have begun taking the names of taxi drivers who drive the immigrants from the border to Rio Branco, as a way to limit abuse and theft of the vulnerable new arrivals.