Ecuadorian Navy Deploys Vessels to Stop Increased Coastal Drug Trafficking
By Dialogo January 07, 2013
QUITO — Ecuador’s Navy has deployed four vessels in an effort to combat drug trafficking along the country’s Pacific coast near the Colombian border.
The four corvettes, along with a missile-launching ship, are based in the northwestern province of Esmeraldas. The Navy said its late August mobilization is part of a program to “support the constant fight against illicit activities and strengthen Ecuador’s ports.” It also coincides with a jump in the transit of cocaine and other illegal drugs across Ecuador’s borders.
Previous efforts by Ecuador’s military and police to defeat drug trafficking have proven ineffective, given the changing dynamic of organized crime. That’s according to Adriana Henao, an official with the Organization of American States’ Drug Abuse Control Commission (known by its Spanish acronym CICAD).
“If the state finds a way to combat drug traffickers, they simply find another way to avoid law enforcement,” she said, noting that in 2012, Ecuadorian officials seized twice as much drugs as in any of the previous three years. But the challenge is very difficult, said spokesman Adm. Raúl Jaramillo of the Ecuadorian Navy.
“Ecuador has a combined maritime territory of around one million square kilometers,” he told Diálogo, pointing out that his country’s ownership of the Galápagos Islands means the Navy has extra territory to patrol. “Ecuador does not have sufficient means to monitor such a large area. It would be a difficult task for even the U.S. Navy with all their might, so how can Ecuador cope with it?”
Ecuador’s role as drug transit point expanding
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,” said Bertha Garciá, director of the Observatorio de Seguridad, Defensa y Democracia, a think tank at Quito’s Universidad Central.
Intelligence reports from the coastal province of El Oro suggest that drug traffickers are often well-equipped, utilizing speedboats that can reach 140 kilometers per hour as well as submarines to keep the drugs hidden.
Jaime Carrera, an analyst with the Quito-based Observatorio de la Política Fiscal [Economic Policy Research Institute], said the former U.S. presence in Manta helped aid in the drug war.
“The base at Manta counted on AWACS aircraft properly equipped to monitor these specific incidents,” he said. But since the government of President Rafael Correa declined to renew the lease for that base, drug trafficking has spiked.
Plan includes new subs, UAVs and satellite monitoring
The deployment of the four patrol vessels is the first naval action since the Correa government unveiled its Moran Valverde Strategic and Institutional Plan in late July. Among other things, that plan aims to modernize Ecuador’s submarines, purchase more unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and equip the Coast Guard with sophisticated geosatellite monitoring systems.
“It is a national priority to control our maritime sovereignty. which is why we are working to adequately equip our naval forces deal with 21st-century threats,” Correa recently said.
In 2009, authorities discovered the first drug submarine off the coast of El Oro province. The local newspaper El Comercio reported that while the vessel had the capacity to carry four tons of drugs, it was not sophisticated and resembled a submersible canoe.
The following year, military forces discovered another fiberglass submersible vehicle in Amazonian waters carrying drugs destined to Mexico. And in March 2012, naval forces seized a fishing trawler hidden in a web of mangroves. The boat was carrying military-grade weapons, explosives and communications equipment.
Ecuador’s deployment of a naval force was later complimented in September with the arrival of four helicopters, dozens of vehicles and 500 men from two Special Forces brigades. However, Jesús Narvaez, governor of the southwestern province of Los Ríos, recently told La Hora that judges must impose stricter sentences on convicted drug traffickers.
To bolster its drug-fighting efforts, Ecuador has purchased Chinese-made radar systems and 18 Embraer Super Tucano light attack aircraft from Brazil. However, the radar systems are not yet operational and only nine Super Tucanos are available for combat operations, since one crashed during a training run.
On Dec. 13, María Fernanda Espinosa was sworn in as Ecuador’s new defense minister. In her acceptance speech, the poet and former minister of national patrimony said “narcotrafficking conspires against the sovereignty of the state, forcing the Armed Forces to double their efforts in combating it.” Espinosa is counting on a series of deals, including the $75 million purchase of Russian weapons and technology.