In 2021, Ecuador seized a record amount of drugs, confiscating 210 tons and dealing a harsh blow to narcotrafficking. According to the Ecuadorian National Police’s Anti-drug Investigation Directorate, 60 percent of drug seizures were made in ports, the Ecuadorian news site Primicias reported. As of early March 2022, authorities have already seized more than 40 tons of drugs, while also conducting most of the operations in ports.
The fight against narcotrafficking, however, is strenuous. While authorities tighten surveillance and control, criminal groups seek to evade detection by using different methods to hide drugs, so as to keep their markets supplied. The use of export containers to transport drugs is among the growing modalities in transnational narcotrafficking. In Ecuador, concern over the contamination of containers with drugs – mainly those carrying bananas – has been growing, and the government is determined to fight back.
“The State cannot yield space to these criminal gangs, and we have to do it [fight], because there are already countries that claim that many containers arrive with drugs at their destination, and begin to look at [products from] Ecuador as brands that they need to be careful and concerned about,” Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso told the press on February 16, 2022.
Between February 13-17 alone, the National Police, in coordination with the Anti-drug Investigation Directorate, the Canine Unit, and the Special Mobile Anti-narcotics Group, deployed three operations at a port south of Guayaquil, where they seized more than 11 tons of cocaine from containers, local media reported. According to authorities, these drugs have a market value of $136 million at their final destinations in European countries.
How container contamination occurs
According to Juan José Pons, general coordinator of Ecuador’s Banana Cluster, an organization that brings together the main unions of banana producers and exporters in the country, criminals can insert drugs into shipments at farms, during transport, in container yards, at ports, at shipping companies, or in transit ports, the Spanish news agency EFE reported.
“Narcotraffickers pay for information about containers in order to contaminate them,” Primicias reported. The key to hiding the drug is to know the destination of the container to be exported and information that the transport logistics office handles, a container trailer driver told the news site. With this information, traffickers bribe drivers on the road, while others are already part of the criminal structure. But the network of corruption has other vulnerabilities, such as port operation personnel who run the risk of being co-opted by criminal organizations, either willingly or by means of extortion.
Ecuadorian exporters have expressed their concerns; the country’s reputation as an exporter is at stake, and customers who receive goods from contaminated containers coming from Ecuador are immediately subjected to an investigation, EFE reported. Recipients are also harassed and threatened by criminal groups operating in these countries when their interests — that is their drugs — are affected.
In an interview with Primicias, Colonel Byron Ramos, national deputy director of the Police’s Anti-drug Investigation Directorate, said that the institution “has conducted an in-depth security study in all ports and delivered it to different port administrators […].” For his part, President Lasso told the press in mid-February that “we have taken control of strategic points, such as the Guayaquil Port.”