Immigrant cleaner leads revolt against Spanish mortgage trapAida Quinatoa leads the fightback as Ecuadoreans struggle to escape 'impossible' home loans in their adopted homeland
Giles Tremlett The Observer, Sunday 11 December 2011 Article history
Aida Quinatoa says Spanish banks have left thousands of her Ecuadorean countrymen facing ruin. Photograph: Olmo Calvo Rodríguez for the Observer
Aida Quinatoa is a tiny, soft-spoken Ecuadorean woman who still wears the colourful, ribbon-trimmed hats of the Quechua-speaking people of Bolívar province as she wanders the streets of Madrid, her new home city.
A dozen years after emigrating to Spain, where she works as a cleaner, Quinatoa is leading a rebellion against banks that have left hundreds of thousands facing destitution.
Her latest move is to have a bill in the Ecuadorean parliament that will declare punitive Spanish mortgages illegal and allow her countrymen to escape the debt collectors by returning home. "Most Ecuadoreans arrived here between 1998 and 2002, fleeing an economic crisis at home," she said.
"We found work but we couldn't find places to live. Landlords wanted six months' payment up front and a Spaniard to guarantee payment, so we ended up packed together in tiny flats with whole families in single rooms."
But as Spain's immigrant population increased fivefold with the arrival of almost five million people over the first decade of the 21st century, the banks identified a new source of income. "The savings banks began inviting us to free cultural events," she said. "They would also tell us how to get mortgages, telling us that property was a good investment. They offered loans of 120% of the value of a home."
Banks and estate agents were in league, talking immigrants into taking out vast loans with terms they often did not understand. Quinatoa saw a "lovely big apartment" and was told to put down a deposit. But then she was told it was no longer available. Rather than return the money, the agency offered a much smaller apartment. In the end, she borrowed €164,000, including a €14,000 personal loan to pay the agency's fee.
In the meantime, she was told that she must also offer her home as collateral for another Ecuadorean family. "We just went to the notary, or to the bank, and signed," she said. "It was a way to find somewhere decent to live."
Then Spain's vast property bubble burst and unemployment surged to 23%. The pyramid of loans and guarantees shoring up some €3.5bn of debt collapsed. Now only 29% of Spain's 400,000 Ecuadoreans are up to date on their repayments, but those who cannot pay fall foul of a Spanish law that means banks can repossess homes while only cancelling half of the mortgage and charging repossession "costs".
Eduardo, a 43-year-old builder from Quito, will lose his Madrid flat in May but will still be heavily indebted to the bank. "I'd leave now, but I am worried about the people who put up the guarantee," he said. "We are honourable people," said Quinatoa. "And we like to pay our debts. But this system is impossible and unfair."
The leader of Madrid's Ecuadorean immigrant association, Quinatoa represented groups who blocked access to homes due to be repossessed, forcing bank officials to back off and negotiate.
When a bank rang Quinatoa to say it wanted to repossess her flat to cover the debts of the family for whom she had stood as guarantor, she led a march to the Caja de Ahorros del Mediterraneo (CAM) bank that had sold many immigrants their mortgages. "They just rang and said, 'We are going after your house," she said. "But banks don't like people protesting at their doors, so they accepted the keys to the other flat in return for cancelling the debt."
In the end it was not Quinatoa who went bankrupt, but CAM – one of several savings banks to have folded because of reckless property loans.
Getting money back from immigrants can be difficult, especially if, as many homeless Ecuadoreans and a lot of British buyers on the "costas" have done, they just run home. However, Spanish banks have other ways to recover money. British law firms are, for example, being hired to go after those owing money on holiday homes. With Ecuadoreans, though, they simply package up the loans and sell them on to others.
One eager buyer has been Banco Pichincha, an Ecuadorean bank that has set up in Spain. "The bank is asking people to put up properties in Ecuador as collateral," Quinatoa explained. "That means if you can't pay here, they can take your property there."
Pichincha has denied it will go after those who return home, but Ecuador's parliament looks set to act anyway.
Last year Quinatoa travelled to Quito with the draft of a new law which will declare Spanish mortgages to be "illegal and unenforceable" and allow her countrymen to free themselves from an otherwise inescapable debt trap.
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