Education Equals Empowerment

The Candy Man: The story of a refugee and his family's journey fleeing violence of Colombia to Ecuador

By Levi Butts

The candy man sells Colombian candy to  tourists in
Esmeraldas for money to send to his family in Tulcán.

A weatherworn man with dark sun- leathered skin and callused hands sells little candies on the streets and beaches of Esmeraldas, a costal town in Ecuador.

He is a refugee.

The candy man crossed the border into Ecuador just 19 days before agreeing to be interviewed.

His age is hard to guess but he moves quickly and with determination.

His face tells a thousand stories and creates a million questions too complex to ask.

His eyes are tired but bright. They shine though years of hard work and determination with an intensity to match the bright Ecuadorian beach town sun.

With a heavy Colombian accent, he tells his story.

The candy man is from Génova, Quindío. He was a farmer there and worked in a café.

In recent years, the strength of paramilitary groups has grown significantly in the areas surrounding his hometown.

One day, a paramilitary operative [referred to as narcos] approached him.

The operative encouraged the candy man to begin working with the militants in the area.

When the candy man refused, the operative threatened the lives of the man and his family.

Fearful for their safety and leaving everything behind, they fled to a nearby town.

A few months later, they were discovered in the neighboring town and were, again, threatened. The candy man knew he and his family had to leave Colombia.

With only that which they could carry on their backs, the candy man and his family fled south and crossed the bor- der into Ecuador.

As they went through immigration near the border town of Tulcán, an Ecuadorian immigration officer told him about ACNUR (Alto Comisariado de las Naciones Unidas para los Refugiados).

ACNUR grants refugee status to individuals displaced by violence.

The candy man hopes to acquire refugee status for he and his family soon.

In the mean time, ACNUR is paying for his family’s room in Tulcán.

The candy man came to Esmeraldas to do odd jobs and sell candy to tourists. He sends the money back to his family in Tulcán.

As refugees and immigrants often do, the candy man faces persecution and discrimination.

Many Ecuadorians hear the Colombian accent and automatically think "narcos" or "ladrones (thieves)," said the candy man.

Ecuadorians refuse to hire Colombians because they think all Colombian are criminals.

The candy man, with a determined smile, explains his simple solution to the discrimination problem, "the important thing is for the Ecuadorians to see the Colombians working hard and smiling. Then, there will be no problems."

The candy man believes, though, the situation is difficult for he and his family now, they are safer than in they were in Colombia.

As the interview concludes, the candy man smiles a tired yet determined smile.

He thanks the reporters and gives them a piece of the Colombian candy he sells.

Thinking of his family, he begins to cry. "All I want to do is keep my family safe," he says.

The candy man then disappears into the bustling beach atmosphere of Esmeraldas, Ecuador.

The candy man misses Colombia. Lamenting that hemay never return, he says, “I love my country, but I cannot go back.”

Militant strength in Colombia continues to grow and the Colombian government can-not control the situation, he says. The narcos and criminals create new networks and expand their operations daily.

The government tries to fight them but fails to protect its people. Paramilitary groups, Colombian police and military all abuse and harass people who live in the country.

The candy man would love to return to Colombia, but he is afraid to do so. He believes there is no chance of safety for him and his family there.

The candy man, like many Colombians who live in rural areas, is a farmer. Colombian farmers typically own small tracts of the country’s incredibly fertile soil, where they practice subsistence farming.

Narcotics operatives need fertile land to grow, process, package and distribute their cash crops like cocaine and marijuana.

The more land they have, the more product they are able to produce. The more workers they have, the more product they are able to harvest, process and package faster. Narcotics operatives approach farmers like the candy man and “encourage” them to convert their farms into growing fields and processing plants.

According to the candy man, when people refuse, they are beaten, threatened, and, in some cases, killed.

The narcos, heavily armed and well equipped, take what is not given to them and force farmers and their families, under threat of death and mutilation, to work in the fields and processing plants.

Militants operations are becoming ever more sophisticated and brutal. According to the candy man, combat- ants take photos of anyone who refuses, call them “traitors” and distribute the photos to operatives in other cities. These photos have caused the deaths of many innocents, says the candy man.

Operatives often kill people for looking like someone in a blurry photograph. They are then rewarded for doing so.

The candy man said, “Narcos, as well as paramilitary and militia groups, all practice the same networking techniques.”

The candy man says the violence in Colombia is sustained by funds from the international distribution and sale of Colombian narcotics.

Many people are making millions of dollars every day. According to the candy man, there cannot be an international solution, nor is the Colombian government control- ling the situation.

The paramilitary groups “recruit” soldiers daily and the Colombian government continues to fail to support and protect its people.

The candy man says that no entity, international or domes- tic, can solve the problems in Colombia, but there is hope for Colombian people.

ACNUR functions well, he says. The organization pro- vides refugees with help, advice and support.

ACNUR pays for a room for the candy man’s family in Tulcán. The candy man sadly admits he may never return to his home, but he says he is thankful to Ecuador, to its people, and to ACNUR.