We have just returned home from a week's very interesting vacation in and around Quito, Ecuador. This trip was our first vacation together in many years. Last time we traveled together we went to Boston to see an eye specialist because of Jim's glaucoma. THAT was definitely not a vacation.
On our trip home, we we found heightened bag checking in both Quito and Mexico City. In Quito, Jim was called downstairs somewhere to have his bag searched while we were waiting at the gate. (Actually, it turned out to be my bag, but no matter) According to Jim, the inspectors went through the giant bag of the woman ahead of him with meticulous care. By the time they got to Jim, it was almost flight time and they were far more cursory. Nonetheless, he had to go through the whatever you call it that you have to walk through for security yet again.
In Mexico City, it took a very long time for the baggage to make it onto the carousel which it did in fits and starts. While we waited, we watched as inspectors, often with the assistance of the owners, unloaded luggage carts brimming with suitcases and carryons. The inspectors went through all this stuff with the proverbial fine-tooth comb. One woman had packed all her belongings into an awful lot of plastic bags. Inspectors opened each one. I was impressed with how polite and amenable everyone was. Passengers helping with difficult knots, lifting clothes out of their piles, and so on. I wondered how the same scene would play in New York. But there was still more. In Mexico's airports, you push a bright red button after your bags have gone through the X-ray machines. If it turns on green, you are actually free to go. If it turns red, you have to go to a customs inspector to get your stuff combed through. I wondered if the people whose bags had already been picked apart had to face this additional obstacle.
The day before we left Quito, October 6, a newspaper headline announced that the President Rafael Correa was supporting the release from prison of a couple of thousand drug mules. A new law now treats them "more as vulnerable people exploited by cartels" than as hardened criminals.
Apparently this was also seen as a slap in the face of the US umm war against drugs (We're not supposed to call it a war on drugs anymore). More important than any gesture against th US I think is that the government, which describes mules as mostly poor and uneducated, often women who are single mothers or sex workers or drug addicts, is acting compassionately. A side note to all of this is that a number of the mules are from Spain, people who could not get jobs in the terrible climate of Spanish unemployment.
And in the interest of fairness, I would like to note that in the US, Eric Holder, departing Attorney General, also has condemned the brutality of aspects of the what shall I say, the government's effort to remove temptation from people who can't do it themselves.
Living in Mexico, it is hard to ignore drug crime-related issues, but I was completely oblivious to the presence in Ecuador of any problem. In El Centro Histórico, police in lime green vests were quite numerous, probably so obvious in order to reassure tourists. The warnings about crime centered on what you might expect in any dense city, namely pickpocketing and purse snatching, among other things. One peculiar (and a bit scary) activity was spraying something in the face of potential marks so they'd pass out and the thief could take everything. Taxi cabs had been scenes of crime, so now you can tell when you are getting a legal taxi. It will have big black numbers on doors, special plates, and, inside, tiny cameras. In any event, we never felt in any particular danger.
But, we did wonder if all the excessive searching, especially on the Mexican end, was due to the release of the mules. And we wondered if the US was pressuring Mexico to watch flights from South America with special attention. The US does not walk softly; it stomps around in big boots. And it seems to consider much of Latin America drug territory even though it may be softening its rhetoric. A fuller description of the situation can be found here. It is worth following the link for an understanding of President Correa's personal interest in drug crime.