Ecuador’s complex involvement in drug trafficking


The recent tragic killing of Ecuador’s presidential hopeful, Fernando Villavicencio, has attracted global attention, shining a spotlight on the persistent security challenges within the nation’s political sphere. Ecuador’s geographical position nestled between two major drug-producing countries, Colombia and Peru, positions it as a significant nexus in the world of drug trafficking. Its proximity to crucial coca cultivation regions in Colombia, such as Nariño and Putumayo, as well as Peru’s Huallaga Valley, makes it an alluring landscape for organized criminal enterprises engaged in drug activities.

In 1999, Ecuador’s adoption of the US dollar as its official currency had unintended consequences. This shift facilitated the rise of unchecked commercial and financial networks, effectively erasing traces of prior exchange and financial practices. These networks have become instrumental in money laundering operations, permeating both public and private sectors. Meanwhile, shortcomings within the country’s judicial and law enforcement systems have left them susceptible to criminal influence. Reports indicate that Ecuador now launders approximately US$3.5 billion annually, a threefold increase from 2016 and a substantial rise from the estimated US$500 million to US$1 billion prior to 2009.

While Ecuador’s role in the drug trade predominantly centers on processing and distributing drugs, there has been a recent and unprecedented surge in coca cultivation along its border with Colombia. Traffickers have ingeniously blended these illicit crops with legal ones, complicating efforts to identify the illegal plantations based on spectral signatures. Research suggests that coca cultivation has expanded to cover around 1,700 acres, a drastic rise from the estimated 250 acres before 2009.

Ecuador boasts an extensive road network that effectively links its borders with ports, airports, and a vast coastline. Its coastal ports have emerged as key points for maritime drug transfers, solidifying Ecuador’s position as a pivotal link in the drug trafficking chain. Cocaine originating from Colombia and Peru often traverses through Ecuador en route to destinations like Mexico, the United States, or Europe, often passing through West Africa.

Particular vulnerabilities exist along Ecuador’s borders, especially in provinces like Esmeraldas, Sucumbíos, and El Oro. Notably, the northern border has historical significance due to the involvement of groups like the FARC, a Colombian Marxist rebel organization. Following the FARC’s demobilization, various criminal factions have emerged, leading to heightened violence in the region.

Complicating the situation further, Ecuador serves as a supplier of chemical precursors necessary for drug production in neighboring nations. While coca leaf cultivation is fundamental to cocaine production, the refining process requires specific chemical components. The movement of these chemicals across Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru lacks effective bilateral oversight, leading to challenges in controlling the precursor supply chain.

Ecuador’s seizures of cocaine have been most prevalent at its ports, revealing a gap in maritime control and security. Despite collaborative agreements among Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Colombia to expand maritime territories, criminal groups have adapted to exploit Ecuador’s maritime routes. Local fishermen often collaborate with drug traffickers, leveraging their knowledge of sea routes to evade law enforcement.

Ecuadorian authorities have faced challenges in detecting and intercepting drugs due to inadequate resources and technology. While the country receives support from the United States in the form of satellite technology and special aircraft, traffickers continue to exploit blind spots. The Galápagos region has emerged as a hub for refueling maritime drug transport, adding another layer of complexity to the situation.

Ecuador has involved its armed forces in countering drug-related issues, but corruption and co-optation have undermined these efforts. The Ecuadorian National Intelligence Secretariat’s focus on political intelligence has hindered effective action against organized crime.

Ecuador’s situation is intertwined with that of Colombia, as evidenced by the involvement of Colombian nationals in the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio. Colombia’s declining coca economy reflects a global trend influenced by changes in cultivation methods, increased production in other countries, and competition from synthetic drugs.

The decline in Colombia’s coca cultivation is attributed to overproduction and reduced market prices. Geographical decentralization of cultivation and the emergence of synthetic alternatives have impacted traditional coca-based products. Political changes in Colombia, including guerrilla demobilization and policy shifts, have further influenced cultivation dynamics.

In summary, Ecuador’s role in the drug trade is complex and influenced by its geography, economic practices, and political challenges. The country’s position as a conduit for drug trafficking between major producing nations, its internal cultivation issues, and its struggles with law enforcement and corruption underscore the intricate nature of the situation.


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