When Europe’s busiest port recently announced the discovery of more than eight tonnes of cocaine hidden in a shipment of bananas – its biggest seizure of illegal narcotics – it included a detail that was no longer surprising. The shipment had come not from Colombia or Peru, Latin America’s largest cocaine producers, but from Ecuador, the small nation sandwiched between them.
Ecuador has struggled for years with drug trafficking because of its location, fairly porous borders and large Pacific Ocean ports. But in recent years, the situation has worsened.
An overcrowded, corrupt and poorly financed penal system has become a breeding ground for prison gangs that have formed alliances with powerful drug cartels from abroad.
These ingredients have helped make Ecuador a major player in the global drug trade and have unleashed a wave of violence, transforming everyday life for millions of Ecuadorians. Now it has drawn international attention with the assassination this month of a presidential election candidate.
Fernando Villavicencio had repeatedly warned of links between drug gangs and government officials and politicians, and days before his assassination had spoken publicly about threats from a local criminal group.
His killing has made security a top concern among voters at the weekend’s election. Many Ecuadorians are wondering how their country of 18 million, which was once a relatively peaceful oasis in a turbulent region, has become a battleground and a place where a politician could be killed in broad daylight.
Ana Vera (44), a housekeeper in Quito, the capital, said the escalating violence had made her reclusive. “You go from home to your work and nothing more,” she said.
The roots of Ecuador’s travails lie largely in a shifting drug market and a government ill-equipped to handle it.
Ecuador’s murder rate dropped under former president Rafael Correa, who governed in 2007-2017 through increased policing and a commodities boom that helped lift millions out of poverty.
But Correa, in 2009, also decided not to extend the lease for a US military base in the port city of Manta used to fly aircraft to interdict drugs, and he cut ties with the US state department’s international narcotics agency.
The expulsion of US forces hampered Ecuador’s ability to control its northern border with Colombia and eased the distribution of drugs in the country, said a former Ecuadorean counterterrorism and anti-narcotics officer who asked not to be identified because he was returning to government service.
Correa’s successor, Lenín Moreno, prioritised paying off the country’s foreign debt and imposed austerity measures and budget cuts that further weakened the nation’s security apparatus.
He eliminated government agencies, including the justice ministry, and slashed spending on policing and prisons, sectors seen as “expendable” in a country that had long been peaceful, said Glaeldys González, who researches Ecuador for the International Crisis Group.
In neighbouring Colombia the government signed a landmark peace agreement in 2016 with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, which controlled much of the drugs trade.
When the group disarmed it cracked open the narcotrafficking business and led to new groups and routes, González said.
Some factions in Farc that refused to sign the accord moved their business to Ecuador, where they could continue operating away from the watchful eye of the Colombian government.
Ecuador had long been a transit hub for drugs coming from Colombia and Peru, but after 2016, local groups became involved in manufacturing and distribution, joining forces with Mexican and even Albanian cartels.
Within three years Ecuador had became the top exporter of cocaine to Europe, said a European drug monitoring agency, where the use of the drug has been rising.
Earlier this month the Netherlands announced the record seizure in Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port, of cocaine from Ecuador worth €600 million.
Domestic and foreign groups took advantage of a country whose ability to take on narcotrafficking had been undermined by the cuts to the police and military, a weak justice system and a penal system largely run by gangs.
An economy that uses dollars as the local currency and weak financial controls also made it easier to launder drug money.
“There was no institutional framework like there was in countries that have had to face this problem,” González said, “because it had never been a problem in Ecuador.”
Complicating matters, many police, military and prison officials have been tied to the drug trade. Numerous high-level officials, including police commanders, have had their visas revoked by the United States because of ties to drug trafficking.
Today at least three major international crime groups operate in Ecuador: Mexico’s two most powerful cartels, Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generación; as well as a European group that the police call the Albanian mafia.
“We are no longer facing common delinquents but the largest drug cartels in the entire world,” the Ecuadorean president Guillermo Lasso said last year.
Ecuador’s prisons, by operating as gang headquarters and recruitment centres, have also played a central role in the country’s descent into drug-fuelled killings and kidnappings.
Ecuador’s prison population surged to 40,000 in 2021 from 11,000 in 2009, driven by a policy adopted under Correa that keeps the accused in jail until their trial, as well as harsher punishment for low-level drug dealers.
“You fill these prisons with people that need to survive there,” said Max Paredes, who focuses on drugs for an Ecuadorean research group. “Many were rejected by their families because of their drug use, and the only way of surviving was becoming part of the gangs.”
A special intelligence unit created in 2015 to gather information about drug trafficking in prisons gave privileges to certain inmates in exchange for information. The practice led to more cocaine seizures outside the prisons but also increased the power of gangs, said Jorge Núñez, an anthropologist who has studied the Ecuadorean prison system for 20 years.
Ecuador’s drug business grew more volatile in 2020, when the leader of the most powerful domestic cartel, Los Choneros, was killed, fragmenting the organisation and setting off an intense fight for control of the market, González said.
Los Choneros was the group that Villavicencio said had threatened him.
At the same time Ecuador’s government has largely failed to take even rudimentary steps to address the security crisis, said Carla Álvarez, who researches security at the Institute for Advanced National Studies in Quito.
Many police officers do not carry guns or wear bulletproof vests, and many prisons lack metal detectors. Some radar installations along the coastline used to detect ships and aircraft carrying drugs are damaged, and the ports do not have surveillance equipment that can be used to detect hidden cocaine shipments, Álvarez said.
Lasso has been criticised for a plodding and inefficient response to the security crisis, and expectations are high for the country’s next leader to find ways to stem the avalanche of violence.
But the country’s interior minister, in a WhatsApp voice message to the New York Times, said the wave of violence was a response to increased government pressure on crime groups, including more drug seizures and the transfer or many gang leaders to maximum-security prisons.
“So, of course, this generates these levels of violence,” said the minister, Juan Zapata. “This shows the strength of the state’s response.”
The candidates in Sunday’s election have emphasised their security credentials, especially after Villavicencio’s assassination. But there was also widespread pessimism about the government’s ability to regain control from violent groups that hold sway in many parts of the country.
Six men arrested in connection with Villavicencio’s killing are Colombian nationals, adding to a sense that outside forces are contributing to Ecuador’s slide into seemingly unstoppable violence.
Days after Villavicencio was shot dead, a local leader of a national political party in the coastal province of Esmeraldas was assassinated, the third politician killed in the past month.
“People no longer want to go out for a walk, or eat in a restaurant, because they kill us,” said Marcos Zúñiga, a 53-year-old taxi driver in Guayaquil, the country’s largest city. “We have never experienced anything like this.”
The assassination of Villavicencio, who made fighting organised crime a pillar of his attempt to lead the country, “was like sending a message”, González said.
“That if you talk about these issues or touch on these issues so openly at a public level,’’ she said, “this is what can happen.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times
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