Ecuador Sets the Pace
By Dialogo January 01, 2013
The Napo River winds east across the Ecuadorean landscape, from the Central
Andes to the Port of Francisco de Orellana in El Coca, where it joins the Coca River
as a major artery to the Amazon River in neighboring Peru. In 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro
led an expedition of Spanish conquerors through its waters in search of gold, but
found the imposing Amazon rain forest instead.
Known as Jatunyacu in the region’s Quichua language, it means “Big River” for
a reason: It represents a major life source for the many indigenous cultures that
inhabit the area, as well as serves as a principal transportation and trade route
that extends across the South American continent. Some 50 to 80 kilometers north of
its waters, the San Miguel and Putumayo rivers, which also feed into the Amazon,
flow parallel to the Napo. These two rivers delineate part of the 728-kilometer
border between Colombia and Ecuador in a porous area that formerly had little state
presence or control.
In 2000, in fact, there were less than 2,000 Ecuadorean Military troops
operating in the country’s northern region under many commands, according to data
gathered by the U.S. Military Group Army Mission in Ecuador. It was a territory
where coca plantations thrived and armed camps belonging to the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia (FARC) existed with relative impunity. Ecuador’s strategic
location by the Pacific Ocean on the west and wedged into two important cocaine
producers on the rest of its circumference has made it an attractive transit country
for drug traffickers and the myriad illegal activities that derive from this
scourge, including transnational organized crime, drug trafficking, environmental
damage and human rights violations.
Today, however, that grim picture has brightened. The Ecuadorean Military has
strengthened its presence in the area, thanks to a Government investment of U.S. $3
billion in infrastructure, equipment, vehicles, boats and sustainment of troops in
the area. It has since established a force of 11,000 personnel to operate along the
northern border, all under the single direction of the Northern Operations Command
No. 1, said U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Ricardo Marquez, riverine program
manager and watercraft engineer with the U.S. Army Mission in El Coca.
During Diálogo’s visit in August 2012 to the 19th “Napo” Jungle Brigade based
in El Coca, Brigadier General Celso Andrade, commander of the IV Amazonas Division
of the Ecuadorean Army (IV-DIV), explained that in 2005, the Armed Forces
re-established its focus from the eastern and southern borders with Peru to the
northern border with Colombia. “Our border is definitely porous. Colombian citizens
living in the border areas [and linked to the FARC] cross the boundaries to set up
support networks for the FARC’s logistics systems,” he said.
With the added support to the area, Ecuadorean forces work closely with their
Colombian counterparts to control the effects that sharing a permeable boundary can
In addition, support in the form of U.S. $100 million from the United States
in the past 12 years has helped the country’s Armed Forces reinforce and expand
control of its sovereignty and national security along the northern border, as well
as fight drug trafficking with a tougher hand. Specifically, the United States has
backed the Ecuadorean Armed Forces Riverine Program with a total package approach
for purchasing individual equipment, tactical vehicles, riverine tactical boats,
infrastructure projects, logistics, operations, maintenance and training.
The Counternarcotics Riverine Program is run by the Ecuadorean Armed Forces
Counternarcotics Program and executed by the U.S. Military Group in Ecuador through
support of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, Florida. As part of the program,
there are 52 boats (as well as all their related maintenance, upgrades, supplies
services and training courses) stationed along different locations on the northern
border. The vessels include the Amazonas IV-DIV in El Coca, the 55th Jungle
Detachment in Putumayo, the 53rd Special Forces Group in Lago Agrio, the 56th Jungle
Battalion in Santa Cecilia and the Marines Battalion in San Lorenzo.They all
navigate and patrol the waters along the Napo, Coca, Putumayo and San Miguel rivers
in support of counternarcotics operations against illegal armed groups, such as the
FARC, and specifically its 48th Front.
The patrol boats are designed to carry between eight and 12 Soldiers to
protect the populace and sovereignty of their country.
Captain Oscar Abad, of the Ecuadorean Army’s Jungle and Counterinsurgency
School, told Diálogo that seven fully armed and equipped crew members ride on each
boat for a given patrol mission: three per side ready to shoot and one machinist who
handles the .50-caliber machine gun strategically positioned at the helm of each
boat. “Each member is trained in the same skills, to be readily available to replace
a fellow member who may be disabled in case of an emergency or attack,” he
explained. In addition, each mission requires the deployment of four boats at a time
to execute searches and actions.
Having been confronted with the need to counter drug trafficking within its
borders, Ecuador is only one of the countries to establish a stronger military
presence along their waterways in recent years. Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and
Panama are undergoing the same efforts. It is for that reason that representatives
of the military and public defense forces of these countries visited El Coca in
August 2012 to witness a demonstration of the Ecuadorean Armed Forces’ achievements.
Commander Efrain Mann of the Honduran Navy explained that Honduras has an
established riverine program of its own. “We employ boats with external jet
propulsion engines [that work better in deeper waters], so we are interested in
assessing the possibility of incorporating the same type of boats in our rivers.”
Belize Defence Force Major Charlton Roches told Diálogo that Belize is soon
to receive two Pantano model boats for use in its riverine program. “We need to have
a clear understanding of the employment of these vessels … their weaknesses and
strengths,” he explained. More than countering transnational organized crime, like
other countries, the focus of Belize’s river operations lies with the local transit
of marijuana, said Maj. Roches.
According to data presented by the Ecuadorean Armed Forces, as a result of
Ecuador’s successful program, the northern border area has been essentially cleared
of permanent armed FARC camps in the country because they are no longer able to
operate with impunity. Their previously safe refuges have been reduced to simple
crossings in small unarmed groups.
Additionally, the camps that the Colombian rebel group formerly set up for
rest and relaxation of their troops have been greatly reduced, coca plantations are
largely nonexistent in the northern border area and as a bonus, according to Brig.
Gen. Andrade, “the Ecuadorean and Colombian militaries have established a positive
and cooperative relationship that allows us to exchange information, intelligence
and support for each other through regular coordination meetings to counter drug