Yohannes Michael Tekle’s journey to the United States began after his sister was drafted into the Eritrean army and, he said, ordered to serve as a sex slave for a high-ranking official. When she refused, she was imprisoned for six months.
Soon afterward, a senior military officer went to Tekle’s school and urged students to sign up for the army. The 20-year-old stood up and publicly accused the army of forced conscription and sexually abusing female recruits.
Tekle’s schoolmates cheered as guards escorted him away. That evening, he was arrested and detained for three months. This launched his determination to flee in what would become a 17-month voyage to the Washington area, which concluded with his being granted asylum this month.
Tekle, now 24, said in an interview that he paid thousands of dollars to smugglers to arrange his passage across a dozen countries — a journey made possible only by fake travel documents and bribery. Tekle was shot at, beaten by security guards and nearly suffocated while stowed in the false bottom of a truck.
He was granted asylum on the grounds that he could be tortured or killed if he returned to Eritrea. But he still shudders over the trek, which brought him to the United States by way of Sudan, Kenya, Gambia and Cape Verde, then Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.
“I was so scared,” he said, speaking in Tigrinya, one of the two main languages of Eritrea, as he told his story to a reporter through an interpreter working for his attorney, Jason Dzubow. “If someone had told me about the journey, I would not have believed them.”
His epic trip underscores the challenge of protecting U.S. borders in the face of agile networks of smugglers, corrupt officials who arrange travel documents and desperate immigrants willing to pay thousands of dollars for the journey. U.S. security officials openly worry about the risk posed by porous international borders.
“While the majority of aliens smuggled into the U.S. probably do not pose a risk to national security, the problem is terrorists could exploit these smuggling travel networks,” said James C. Spero, deputy assistant director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which enforces immigration laws. “It is a major concern for us.”
In retrospect, it was inevitable that Tekle would have to leave home after he confronted military officials at his school. That evening in September 2007, he was watching television at home in Asmara, Eritrea, when he heard banging on the gate outside. When his father opened the gate, two police officers rushed in and carted Tekle off in handcuffs to a police station.
“Who told you to ask questions about the government holding people for longer than 18 months of National Service?” officials asked during his interrogation, according to an affidavit Tekle filed with U.S. immigration officials. “Who do you know that has been sexually abused while at National Service?”
Officials at the Eritrean Embassy in Washington and at the Permanent Eritrean Mission to the United Nations did not respond to requests for comments about Tekle’s allegations of forced conscription and abuse by the Eritrean military. A State Department human rights report this month said forced conscription is common in Eritrea. Military leaders, who led the march to independence from Ethiopia in 1993, have never had elections and have suspended civil liberties on the grounds that the country is under threat.
According to Tekle, the police officials who arrested him thought foreign agents had manipulated him to ask the questions. Tekle said he was detained for three months and beaten with a garden hose. Eventually, he and several other inmates were ordered transferred to the notorious Wia prison. When the truck carrying the prisoners broke down, two inmates leapt out and tried to escape. As guards pursued the escapees, Tekle said he and 10 others jumped out and ran in the opposite direction as guards fired at them.
His family arranged for him to be smuggled into Sudan. But Tekle said he knew even then that this was only a first step. His goal was the United States.
The smugglers, whom his parents hired for him, took Tekle through a long hike across open fields studded with sharp thorns. They marched at night and slept during the day. At dark, they crossed the border one by one. Tekle said his parents, in Eritrea, asked a businessman they knew, who was traveling to Khartoum, the capital, to ferry money for more smugglers to get Tekle to Brazil — a steppingstone to the United States well known to Eritrean migrants.
Even early on, Tekle’s journey showed how smugglers form complex networks to move people across borders. Consular officials arranged documents in return for secret payments. A cafe owner in Khartoum held Tekle’s money for safekeeping and delivered it to a man whom Tekle knew only as Dawit, who arranged for Tekle to get a legitimate Eritrean passport. The smuggler then mailed the passport to South Africa, where he obtained a fake Brazilian visa and got Tekle a legitimate visa for Gambia.
In July 2008, Tekle flew from Sudan to Gambia, stopping in Kenya and Senegal, and on to Brazil, arriving at the northeastern city of Fortaleza. Smugglers helped him board a bus south to Sao Paulo.
Tekle said he stopped at Internet cafes during the trip to get advice on chat rooms from other Eritreans who had made the grueling journey. He got names and numbers for smugglers in various countries and references about reliability and cost. Tekle said his aunt in Baltimore wired him money. She declined to be interviewed for this article.
A smuggler took Tekle’s Eritrean passport — presumably to recycle it for another user — and arranged a fake South African passport. But after a visit to the airport, Tekle’s Brazilian smuggler decided that it would be safer for Tekle to take a bus to Venezuela and to continue on to Colombia by bus.
At the Colombian border, Tekle said, he and other migrants each bribed the border guards with $100. They were waved through.
The payouts quickly escalated.
In Colombia, a smuggler named John offered to use the South African passport to get Tekle through Bogota’s airport immigration checks and then to Honduras. The bill: $3,500. Tekle balked and turned to another smuggler, who asked for $450 to get him into Panama. The journey took three days and included hikes and boat rides. But in Panama, Tekle was arrested. After weeks in detention, he was deported to Colombia to a refugee camp. Tekle decided to try another route.
He traveled to San Andres, a Colombian island in the Caribbean Sea, hoping to make it from there to Nicaragua. Without aid from smugglers, however, Tekle was arrested again. A $200 bribe secured his release, but the man he bribed kept Tekle’s South African passport.
A new smuggler agreed to take Tekle and about 20 other African migrants to Nicaragua by boat. Two other smugglers met them and put them on a bus. Again, Tekle was arrested. This time, Nicaraguan officials had so many detainees on their hands that they turned Tekle and others over to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.
Shortly afterward, Tekle made a deal with a smuggler who hid him in the false bottom of a truck to take him through Honduras and into Guatemala. Guards stopped the truck four or five times at checkpoints, but the migrants were not detected. Tekle said there was so little air during the 18-hour journey that he almost suffocated.
As he lay in the truck, feeling like he was going to die, he was consumed by doubt.
“I had so many regrets,” Tekle said. “I asked myself: Why did I do this?”
From Guatemala, smugglers led Tekle into Mexico on foot, where he surrendered to authorities. He was released with a warning to leave the country within 30 days — a document that smugglers told Tekle he should obtain to prove to U.S. authorities that he had been in Mexico.
In May 2009, smugglers guided Tekle across the Rio Grande into McAllen, Tex. He was driven by car to a safe house in Houston and put on a bus to Baltimore.
Tekle estimated his family spent $24,000 for bribes, smugglers and his living expenses during the nearly year and a half he was in transit.
On April 4, Tekle and his attorney, Dzubow, successfully argued that the young man had a legitimate fear of persecution if he returned to Eritrea. Tekle was granted asylum and is working at a handbag and accessories stand at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore.
Immigration authorities said the networks that facilitated Tekle’s migration across three continents illustrates the difficulty of halting the flow of migrants.
Spero, of the ICE, said some human trafficking is highly centralized, especially in Mexico, where smugglers often have ties to drug cartels. But in other countries, no single smuggler is responsible for an entire journey.
“The route itself is going to change,” Spero said as he explained the challenge of shutting down routes. “Tomorrow it could flip-flop countries and cut out four countries.”