La Vida Quiteña
I am working for the ABA Rule of Law Initiative in Quito with Taylor Friedlander, who is here through the Pepperdine Asylum and Refugee Law Clinic.
No matter how much I travel internationally, the nerves are always present when I first step onto foreign land. Not knowing where I am or where to go, wondering if the people will be friendly, and, of course, feeling like everyone is staring at me like I am a creature from outer-space. But it didn't take long for me to feel at ease, and at the same time, excited to be in Ecuador. As I exited the airport I spotted a bright neon green sign with "Brittany T" written in red sparkly paint. Behind the sign was a woman named Hilda, who is just as bright and sparkly as that sign and whom I now call mi mama ecuatoriana. Before arriving in Ecuador, I had been in contact with Dr. Andres Buitron (they address lawyers by "Doctor" here in Ecuador...maybe we can start this trend in the U.S.?), who is Chief of the Victims and Witness Protection Program at the Fiscalia (prosecutor's office). Andres was nice enough to ask his parents, Hilda and Edgar, to take us in until we could find a more permanent housing arrangement. Hilda is bright, full of life, friendly, and motherly. Edgar is hilarious, curious, caring, and athletic (except he twisted his ankle pretty bad playing volleyball last week). I have been so fortunate to know them and be welcomed by them into this new country. We have spent the past two weekends with them hiking, watching movies, riding bikes, going to the park, taking a trip to Otavalo for the Saturday market, and of course, eating Ecuadorian food.
As far as work, the past week and a half has been a learning period consisting of a visit to the public defenders office, research of prominent crimes, and a UNHCR workshop. When we visited the public defenders office, one of the public defenders took us to a men's jail called the Centro de Detencion Provincial (CDP). We interviewed a detainee who was arrested for lesiones (battery) against a client of the bar/discoteca at which he worked as a bouncer. He actually seemed pretty chipper considering he had been in the jail for a month and a half. We also met two guys arrested for robo de ganado (livestock theft). They stole three horses. The public defender was able to arrange a "suspension condicional del procedimiento," which is basically a plea bargain. The two men admit the crime and the judge decides whether they are incarcerated for 6 months or one year, and then they "sale libre" without a criminal record. I think we will continue to have field trips like this throughout our time here, getting to know the different institutions that play important roles in the criminal justice system.
For the most part, we will be working closely with Andres throughout the summer as he focuses on the protection of victims and witnesses, especially those of human trafficking. Andres is also working on a presentation that advocates for the creation of a unified criminal court for UNASUR. My first research assignment focused on the justifications for the new court, that is, the need for a common forum that addresses transnational organized crime such as cell phone robbery, drug trafficking, and human trafficking. Cell phone robbery is prominent between Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Most of the cell phone theft occurs in Colombia, sometimes resulting in death. The cell phones are then transported in mass quantities through Ecuador and Peru. I found that these three countries have already applied a lot of effort to eliminating this crime and the number of stolen cell phones is decreasing. As far as drug trafficking, I researched the presence of Mexican and Colombian cartels in Ecuador. In May, there was a plane crash on the Pacific side of Ecuador, in which two mexican drug traffickers were found dead with $1.3 million--a possible sign that the presence of drug trafficking cartels from both Mexico and Colombia is rising and that Ecuador is becoming more than just a transit country.
Since that first research assignment, I have been focusing more on human trafficking and its relation to refugees or those seeking refugee status. Last Thursday and Friday I had the privilege of attending a UNHCR workshop with national police specializing in victim protection, social workers, and representatives from the Fiscalia. The workshop focused on terminology like who can be considered a refugee, what are their rights, and what happens when a refugee commits a crime. The national police also learned how to conduct effective interviews of those seeking asylum in Ecuador. Now I am working on a presentation for a conference that will be held in Esmeraldas for World Refugee Day. The presentation addresses human trafficking from a refugee and gender perspective.
Those nerves that existed when I stepped off the plane have continued to appear whenever I have a meeting with a colleague or have to present information in Spanish, but each of those experiences helps me learn and grow to the point where those nerves eventually disappear. At least I have a little better understanding of where I am and where I need to go, and I definitely know that the people here are friendly. And the staring will never stop, but that's ok... Hasta luego!