News, Off Campus

52 BC Students and Staff Sent Home From Ecuador Amid ‘Armed Conflict’

Selena Marmolejo, MCAS ’25, was playing outside with children at an after-school program in Quito, Ecuador, when she was instructed to leave due to nearby violence. 

“It was like a movie,” Marmolejo said. “One of the community partners … he was just like, ‘All activities canceled, itinerary is over, all of the kids need to come and get picked up because there are exploding cars, they’re holding people for ransom, and they’re threatening civilians.’”

Fifty-two Boston College students, faculty, and staff were in Ecuador on Tuesday, Jan. 9, when Daniel Noboa, the president of Ecuador, declared an “internal armed conflict” in the country, temporarily closing schools and business.

Noboa declared a state of emergency on Jan. 8 after gang leader José Adolfo Macías Salazar escaped prison.

Noboa then instructed the military to “neutralize” two dozen gangs, deeming them terrorist organizations after an armed group stormed the set of a live news broadcast in Guayaquil.

BC’s Office of Global Engagement tracks the itineraries of all international BC facilitated trips through a travel registry, according to Samuel Gras, associate director of global safety and security in the Office of Global Engagement.

“Through that travel registry … we get alerts when there’s any changes in conditions,” Gras said. “It could be a hurricane, natural disaster, protests, transportation strikes, infectious disease, crime—basically if there’s any sort of safety alerts for the locations where we have travelers, we receive those.”

While he initially received an alert of prison riots breaking out in Ecuador, by the evening of Jan. 8, he learned the country’s government had declared a state of emergency. After this alert, Gras said he messaged safety advice to all of the travelers. 

But when Noboa declared an “internal armed conflict” the following day, Gras decided to initiate an early departure for the BC students and staff in Ecuador. 

“On that Tuesday, conditions started to deteriorate,” Gras said. “That’s when things kind of changed from, ‘Okay, everybody, be aware, be careful,’ to ‘This is a serious situation we have to respond to.’”

Two BC service groups and a handful of students studying abroad were in the country at the onset of the conflict, according to Gras.

MEDLIFE, one of the service groups, is a program facilitated by the Office of Student Involvement, dedicated to bringing medical care to low-income communities. 

Sevine Klitz, a student on the MEDLIFE trip and MCAS ’26, said the leaders of her trip informed the group that they would be departing early during their fourth day in the country.

“We all got this text on the group chat and they were frantically knocking on our doors,” Klitz said. “So we go downstairs, where we usually have dinner, and they were like, ‘Hey, MEDLIFE decided to cancel the rest of our trip.’” 

The announcement left the group in a state of shock and stress, according to Klitz. 

“At first, we were all just shocked and just called our parents,” she said. “I saw a few people crying. I cried. I think we were all just incredibly shocked, and then the group split into two types of reactions—there was a group that reacted very strongly, and were incredibly stressed out, and another group of people who were very disappointed, but tried to make the most of it.” 

Uma Patel, MCAS ’25, was also on the MEDLIFE trip, and said things “felt uneasy” before the leaders of the trip called for an emergency meeting. 

“There were several articles and talks that came out about terrorist attacks and other civil unrest,” Patel said. “Once they had that meeting, MEDLIFE told us that we needed to evacuate.” 

Patel said it was a disheartening situation for her and all of the other volunteers. 

“I felt super sad because I had to get an emergency passport and everything a week before,” Patel said. “It was super sad to only have one clinic day when we were supposed to have three and to think about all the good work that we’d not be doing there.” 

Patel said that while she felt unsafe in the city of Tena, where the group’s service site was, she felt much more at ease once they returned to Quito.

“Our actual hotel [in Quito] was locked and there was security everywhere,” Patel said. “There were police on every corner of the streets as well, so in the city, I did not feel unsafe at all.” 

Allan-Jacob Castillo, another student on the MEDLIFE trip and MCAS ’27, said he also felt safer after arriving in Quito.

“It felt like an action movie,” Castillo said. “Like all these guys were undercover, escorting us across the street.”

A few of the students on the trip decided to book their own trip back without the help of the University, according to Castillo. 

“Everyone’s panicking, then we get an update like, ‘Okay, we have this flight secured for everyone on the 12th,’” Castillo said. “And then, on the second day, people were like, ‘I don’t want to wait until the 12th.’ So, you know, they left.” 

Castillo said he was frustrated with the University because he thought it should have been able to fly the group back earlier. 

“Someone at BC, their whole job is like international affairs or whatever, and they’re like, ‘Oh, we can’t get a flight,’” Castillo said. “Meanwhile, there’s students doing their own research like, ‘Oh, there’s like 30 seats right here—why can’t we just do this?’ Or, ‘Why can’t we all just fly back individually?’” 

Students who chose to fly back individually paid for their flights out of pocket, Castillo said.

Though Patel was frustrated with the University, she said the trip leaders did an excellent job navigating the difficult circumstances.

“They did an amazing job handling the situation,” she said. “They calmed us down and really retained their composure the whole time.”

Marmolejo, who was a part of the other service group, Arrupe, doing service through Campus Ministry, said she thought BC handled the situation well. 

“I feel like BC did absolutely everything they could,” she said. “Nobody planned for this.”

Even though she was scared, Marmolejo said that she knew she would be safe. 

“I knew that I have this privilege of attending one of the most prestigious schools in the world,” she said, “Regardless of the fact that we’re in a country that’s crumbling right now, I knew that we were going to be saved. Like, if BC had to send a helicopter, I knew that they would do that.” 

Students on the Arrupe trip were isolated at their retreat site during the crisis, according to Marmolejo. 

“We couldn’t leave the retreat house because of how unsafe it was in the streets, but honestly, I think they played the role the best they could,” Marmolejo said.

According to Gras, the Arrupe trip left on Jan. 11, and the MEDLIFE trip left on Jan. 12.

“I feel sorry that the students had to come home early, but I’m glad we had the structure in place to be able to respond to this,” Gras said. 

BC offered some support to students when they returned, Castillo said. 

“We’ve gotten some emails about going to University Counseling,” Castillo said. “That’s about it, I think.” 

Marmolejo said she has found support in her Arrupe leaders since returning to BC.

“Emily Egan, who’s the director [who] oversees Arrupe … I just came from a one-on-one with her, just checking in to make sure that we have the support we need,” Marmolejo said.

Lyla Walsh and Ava Sjursen contributed to reporting.

January 19, 2024