Ecuador Sees Drug Seizures Rise as Traffickers Discover New Routes
By Dialogo October 15, 2012
QUITO, Ecuador — In March 2008, Colombian forces bombed and raided a compound belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Ecuador’s northern region of Angostura. The attack eliminated FARC’s second-in-command and proved that traffickers had found a new area of operations in Ecuador — a country that historically has enjoyed one of the lowest rates of drug consumption in Latin America.
“It was after the attacks at Angostura in 2008 that Ecuador realized the drug trade was, in fact, an imminent threat to national security,” said Bertha Garciá, director of the Observatorio de Seguridad, Defensa y Democracia, a think tank at Quito’s Universidad Central.
García said that while Ecuador has never waged a “war on drugs” to the degree that Colombia or Mexico have, the country has become a victim of the “balloon effect” — a theory used to describe how the drug trade reacts to pressures.
“Colombia and Peru have been able to conduct successful anti-drug campaigns and have made Ecuador an easier, more accessible habitat for the drug trade,” said Jaime Carrera, leader of the Quito economic research institution Observatorio de la Política Fiscal.
Drug dealers favor Ecuador because it’s small and convenient
Ecuador, which shares a border with Colombia, has been historically used by Colombian cocaine cartels as a transport point to the Pacific corridor.
However, as Colombia’s three-decade long war on the FARC and cartels has begun to yield positive results, Ecuador has expanded “from being a mere trafficking route to also producing drugs and providing places for storage of illegal weapons and drugs,” García said.
Fernando Carrión, an academic at the Quito headquarters of the Latin American School of Social Sciences (known by its Spanish acronym FLACSO), said this balloon effect struck Ecuador on three levels.
“First it increased consumption within the country. Second, Ecuador has seen an increase in drug laboratories, and third, there’s increased use of the national territory,” he said, noting that since 2008, Mexican and Colombian cartels seem to have stepped up cooperation with their Ecuadorian counterparts.
Earlier this year, a light aircraft with $1.3 million in cash aboard crashed in the northwestern Ecuadorian province of Manabí, killing its Mexican pilot and co-pilot. No official flight plan had been logged for the Mexican-registered plane, which was flying low, presumably to evade radar detection.
A few days after that May 13 plane crash, troops found a drug-processing laboratory near the crash site, seized half a ton of cocaine paste and detained three people. Since coca is not cultivated in Ecuador, such labs are rare finds.
Cocaine confiscations up dramatically
Even so, in the last three years, the seizure of narcotics by Ecuadorian security forces has jumped significantly. The Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) reports that in 2010, confiscations came to seven tons — but that by 2011, seizures had risen to 11 tons. Also last year, authorities shut down 13 drug processing labs throughout Ecuador.
So far in 2012, Ecuador has already seized more than twice as much drugs as all of 2011, reported the Quito newspaper La Hora. In addition, seven clandestine drug labs have been shut down this year. Carrera said not a week goes by without a new seizure of a cocaine shipment or the discovery of new laboratories.
In March, Ecuador’s top military strategists warned of the threat posed to their country by powerful groups like Colombia’s Rastrojos crime syndicate and Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. The warnings were contained in a 225-page review leaked to local media.
Yet experts still aren’t sure what accounts for the sudden explosion in trafficking. One possibility is the country’s geography. “Ecuador’s porous borders facilitate trafficking in all directions,” said Carrión. He pointed out that to the south lies Peru, one of the world’s largest suppliers of cocaine.
Use of U.S. dollar makes Ecuador attractive to smugglers
In late September, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime — in its annual report on Peru — said that country had 62,500 hectares of coca under cultivation. This represented an increase of slightly more than 2 percent from the previous report and the sixth consecutive year the agency has detected an increase in coca crops. Peru remains the second largest producer of coca, following Colombia with 64,000 hectares. Bolivia has 27,200 hectares of coca.
To Ecuador’s east is Brazil, from where drugs can filter into Africa and then Western Europe. To the west lies the Pacific Ocean, which offers a supply route to the United States, Eastern Europe and the new Asian markets.
García said it’s clear to her that many regions within Ecuador are becoming involved in drug trafficking, “not just the traditional Putumayo region in the north.”
Ecuador’s function as a regional drug hub has become even more attractive thanks to its use of the U.S. dollar as its national currency.
“The drug trade carries more baggage than simply the narco-trafficking,” said Carrera. “It also brings with it money laundering” — creating a window of opportunity for money laundering operations to co-exist with drug sales, decreasing the risk and making it more convenient for drug cartels to operate within Ecuador.
In addition, it seems far more dollars are circulating within Ecuador than the amount of currency which enters legally. This, said Carrera, “means there are extra dollars entering from somewhere other than through regular national income operations.”
ATPDEA gives farmers an incentive not to grow coca
At the recent Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, the region’s leaders showed a “true desire to find another approach to the drug situation,” said Carrión.” Latin America’s presidents and parliamentarians must, he said, adopt “a well-rounded strategy which encompasses many remedies.”
As such, Ecuador’s National Assembly is now debating a law that would allow drug users to be treated as patients, not criminals. This would let the state invest in rehabilitation clinics — similar to what the municipality of Bogotá is doing. The country is also considering the legalization of certain drugs for medical purposes, as Uruguay has done with marijuana.
Dealing with the increasing presence of drug trafficking in Ecuador also requires international cooperation. One effective tool has been the country’s traditional cooperation with the United States, which in 2002 enacted the Andean Trade Preference Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) to benefit Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
Under ATPDEA — which expires on July 31, 2013, unless the U.S. Congress renews it — tariffs on Ecuadorian products entering the U.S. market have been drastically reduced or eliminated. That has created an incentive for local farmers to grow legal exports such as coffee, cocoa or flowers instead of harvesting coca leaves for a much more lucrative, but ultimately riskier, business.
Meanwhile, Ecuador’s national police force has boosted its level of internal monitoring while successfully combating drug rings within the country. The military has also increased patrols along its northern border with Colombia, where trafficking routes and drug labs are most common.
However, “this is not going to be enough,” states Carrera. “The drug industry is already establishing roots in this country.”
I liked it, but it could have been more specific about Ecuador and its relationship with drugs. For example, it could have reported what the Ecuadorian government's official position is on the legalization of marijuana in Uruguay (a news report could be written about this, you know).