What started as a leap of faith quickly turned into a tragic tale for two Black brothers who, in search of a simpler life, became expats in Ecuador. An exchange program inspired an enchantment with the South American nation. Years later, both brothers relocated.
Now, they're being imprisoned for murder in the country.
They say they were wrongfully convicted.
Ronell and John spoke with Blavity about their quest for justice as they remain in an Ecuadorian prison. They say they haven't had proper representation, nor have they had a fair trial.
The brothers gave their first interview to Rob Christian, who manages the YouTube channel dcbornrob – Erasing Borders.
In that interview, titled "Americans Seek Justice In Ecuador Prison," the brothers said that on March 11, 2017, police showed up to their farm in Palora, Ecuador, at approximately 5 a.m. Ecuadorian authorities claim they were informed by locals that they had a cocaine plantation and were stashing American police weapons on the property. The Stephensons said this isn't true.
As police searched one of their four homes, an Indigenous family (the Tzamrendas), began digging in their backyard before uncovering two bodies. The victims were later identified as two boys in the Tzamrenda family.
However, the brothers said that the Tzamrendas likely planted the bodies and used the false claims of drug distribution and firearms as a cover-up to get onto their farm. John claimed the victims' father later revealed in court he was already aware of the bodies on the property.
In their interview with Blavity, John said the Tzamrendas had arrived on their property hours before the authorities and came prepared with shovels as if they already had known where to dig. He also said the family served the search warrant alongside the police, which the brothers said is illegal.
"They overpowered the police presence," John said of the family.
"Why did the victim's family know that a warrant was being served and at what time the warrant was being served?" Ronell questioned.
The siblings were later arrested without proper evidence on three charges: possession of guns, drug-trafficking and murder. John said the Indigenous family remained at the crime scene as he and his brother were taken away. He said cops allowed one of the family members to punch them.
“[The police] kept insisting that the Indigenous people will come and kill us,” John said on "Americans Seek Justice In Ecuador Prison," referring to prior instances of foreigners being killed due to conflicts with Indigenous tribes.
During that time, their homes, which John cannot sell due to a current lien on the property as their case remains ongoing, were destroyed by the Indigenous. Everything, including their laptops, cameras, clothes, ducks and tilapia pond was stolen.
"The police left the natives on our property and let them have a free-for-all and basically do what they want: ransack, burn, loot everything," John told Blavity News.
In Ecuador, John said people are intimidated by the locals due to fear of being killed and of their alleged use of black magic. Instead of enforcing the law, it's said that the police merely stay away from Indigenous communities.
"Because [the police] don't know how to use equal force, they only know how to operate their guns, but they can't use their guns on them," Ronell said.
The Tzamrenda family then went on the news with the intent to criminalize the brother's image, and later requested that they sign over their land and pay the Tzamrendas $1 million USD, which the Stephensons did not do.
"Then they dropped to $500,000…$200,000 ..$100,000 because in this country the prosecutor doesn't initially press charges. The family is the one who presses charges," John said.
It was the oddity of that request and damning information the brothers would later learn in prison that has left them to believe the Tzamrendas are ultimately responsible for the killings. Ronell said they befriended Indigenous people inside the prison who agreed that the family was criminal.
“A lot of the Indigenous within the prison gave us a cultural background on that family…They said, 'If you do not listen to him or follow his orders, he takes action, whatever the actions may be within their Indigenous culture,'" Ronell said of the father.
According to John, the father of the Tzamrenda family was investigated twice before. Once in 2007 for the kidnapping and murder of two Italian tourists, and again in 2012 for the murder of his two nieces. However, he was never indicted.
The prison where the brothers are now, located in the southern part of Ecuador’s Andes mountains, is considered one of the country's most vile penal institutions. It's reportedly gang-operated and notorious for constant violence and deaths. On Feb. 23, roughly 79 inmates were killed as uprisings flared in four Ecuadorian prisons, Cárcel de Turi included, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"There was a massacre of a whole unit that killed about 34 people and in two hours," John said.
HRW reported that many of Ecuador's prisons are overcrowded with weak security and poor health care. These issues were only exacerbated as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. Ecuadorian officials later blamed the incident on “concerted actions of criminal organizations,” according to the HRW report.
"There's so much corruption here. It's unbelievable," Ronell said. "The monthly salary average [of the workers] is $500 to $600. So everyone is willing to do something illegal for an extra piece of cash."
As the COVID-19 virus continued to spread, gang leaders forced inmates who had tested positive to quarantine for two to three weeks locked in their cells, according to John.
"The authorities here have little to no say within … these four walls," he said.
In some good fortune, the Stephensons have cellular connection and are permitted to use phones at Cárcel de Turi because offenders tore out the pay phones in the basement. Ronell said it can cost anywhere between $350-$500 to get a phone inside, but it's their only means of communicating with the outside world.
The first prison they were being held in, he said, was less chaotic, but access to cellular data was heavily monitored by prison guards.
"[This prison] is way more dangerous but we have a chance to communicate," he said.
But even as the Stephensons try to get connection, their devastating story has not gained traction in U.S. media. Throughout their imprisonment, the U.S. government has done little to protect them, John said during the interview with dcbornrob – Erasing Borders.
“The only thing [the U.S. government] offered to do for us, they said they could give us a list of lawyers that they recommend,” he said.
They were given the list in mid-2017 while being held in prison, and it provided the names of primarily retired and civil attorneys. The government has since only contacted them every six months, and communication has been limited to video chat since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It feels like the government just wants to step back; they don't want to touch it," John said.
Ronell explained that in Ecuador, there is no one speaking on their behalf.
“In our case, it’s only the victim's family that is speaking [to the news]. No, no one from the legal end to verify what took place on our farm," he said.
Time and time again, the brothers were left with attorneys who were too fearful of the Indigenous family to speak up, they said. According to John, their representation never performed a cross examination, nor did they give objections or rebuttals to the prosecutor in court, for fear of retaliation.
"We were told the whole time to be quiet, don't speak, that this will blow over and everyone knows what's going on," John said.
To help increase awareness around their case, the brothers started an Instagram in June that recounted their arrest and the events that preceded it. The account now has roughly 2,600 followers.
They have called on the public to contact Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen as well as Rep. David Trone to request a fair trial for the brothers. All three represent Maryland in the U.S. Congress. Blavity has attempted to reach out to the senators, but neither were available for comment.
John said his parents are spearheading the awareness of their case. He said they've contacted the U.S. Embassy and frequently call on members of Congress to get involved. Before the pandemic, the parents used to visit them in prison every month and would stay a week on average, meeting with lawyers. Blavity reached out to the head of mission at the Ecuadorian Embassy in D.C., but the office was unavailable for comment at the time of publishing.
In the interview for dcbornrob – Erasing Borders, John said the initial dream to move from the U.S. grew after participating in a 2012 exchange program that took him to Ecuador's capital of Quito. Back then, he looked at the country through an affectionate lens, finding it to be South American paradise. Two years after his graduation from Washington and Jefferson College, he moved back to Ecuador with his dad at just 21. Ronell joined him shortly after.
“I fell in love with what I saw here. I love the natural, organic life and it inspired me to move back here,” John said.
He purchased their farm located in the Amazon rainforest in June 2013, from a Canadian seller through a real estate company in Cuenca, Ecuador. Once there, the brothers fixed up the place and built several other homes, eventually opening a small tourism resort that drew travelers from the U.S., Australia and England.
“I started planting pitaya, some fruits … it wasn't a huge thing at first," John said of their tourism business.
Looking back, John said he believes the Indigenous locals were ultimately upset with the quick pace of their development on what their communities call sacred and spiritual land.
"I purchased animals, I had cows," he said. "I had just recently started a project with the Tabasco company in America to grow pepper on three hectares, [approximately six acres], and they saw the progress in a short period of time.”
Ronell said Indigenous people from that community show their strength in numbers. He believes he and John were ultimately targeted because it was just the two of them who lived together.
"It's a community of 100 that came against myself and my brother," Ronell said.
He said they've since learned that most Americans in Ecuador only purchase property in the inner cities for the legitimate fear of being dangerously targeted by Indigenous locals anywhere else in the country.
"When you go and put yourself on a farm, away from the city, who's to watch your back?" Ronell questioned.
But given their experiences in the U.S., they were hesitant to be responsive to any stereotypes.
"Being a Black man from America, we never received well, someone saying a whole group of people is bad. It just never sat well with us," John said.
Their arrest was followed by a year-long legal process before they were handed their sentences in Jan. 2018.
However, litigation, they said, is carried out much differently in Ecuador in comparison to within the U.S. justice system. According to John, the defense has to appeal for forensic data to be presented. It's not the prosecutor's responsibility to present evidence and prove their case, as the brothers initially thought.
Ronell said evidence that would have proved their innocence, including camera footage and receipts, were never looked into. Such investigations could have substantiated he and his brother's accounts.
"It actually became detrimental to us in court because the prosecutor sent an investigator three months after [the arrest] and the investigator then says, 'Oh, we don't know for sure [the Stephensons] went there because there's no receipts and there's no video footage."
"We need forensics," Ronell said. "If we only had forensics, we'd be out of here tomorrow."
Although it took several years, the brothers are now bilingual and can effectively communicate in Spanish with their attorneys.
"Prior to this, we were struggling to get our point across to a lawyer and it's basically coming off to them as an American that doesn't know too much," John said. "Now that we clearly can dictate our feelings and what we see is necessary, it's easier to see if the person is going to be able to complete the job that they say they will do."
But corruption, Ronell said, has been Ecuador's excuse not to further their case in a timely manner, despite its constitution being mirrored after that of the U.S.
"They tell us all the time, 'This is not America. This is Ecuador,'" he said.
John said they are currently working with their lawyer to get an appeal.
As for justice, the Stephensons are not looking for any GoFundMe accounts to be established in their honor. They just want their freedom and for the perpetrators to be found. They also hope to receive reparations for the property they lost.
"The people that committed these crimes need to be put in prison," Ronell said. "All we want is our freedom."