Ecuador and Colombia are making significant efforts to reduce the advances of narcotrafficking in their territories, increasing their focus on the banana industry, an important source of income for both nations.
In a June 2023 investigation, Ecuador’s state-owned TC Televisión and the transnational media initiative CONNECTAS warned about the increase in drug exports from Ecuador using banana shipments due to the lax system for exporting the fruit.
The journalistic investigation cites police sources, which reported that 127 companies were found to have participated in the concealment of drugs in banana shipment in the 326 seizures carried out in the last five years. Sixty of these were repeat offenders. Between May and June 2023 alone, authorities seized 4,800 kilograms of cocaine that were hidden in containers with boxes of Ecuadorian bananas.
“The entire business of our sector is affected by the contamination of cargo or containers with drugs from criminal gangs,” José Antonio Hidalgo, executive director of the Association of Banana Exporters of Ecuador, told Diálogo on July 26, acknowledging the impact of drug trafficking on the banana industry, mainly after restrictions were lifted following the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Hidalgo, Ecuador is the world’s leading exporter of bananas, with a share of approximately 33 percent. Some 92 percent of Ecuador’s production is exported to five continents. This requires a weekly average of between 5,500 and 6,000 containers of fruit. The main destinations in order of importance are the European Union, Russia, the Middle East, the United States, and South America.
The points of departure of the fruit abroad are: the Maritime Port of Guayaquil, Bolívar Port, DP World Posorja, as well as the Guayaquil Port Terminal and Naportec.
“All these business statistics were observed by criminal gangs to contaminate the cargoes with drugs,” Hidalgo said. “For this reason controls at the ports of embarkation were increased, and our cargo in the last two years is checked more intensely at the ports of disembarkation.”
Alina Manrique, the Ecuadorian journalist who prepared the TC Televisión and CONNECTAS report, spoke with Diálogo on July 25 and said that banana shipments are not only contaminated in ports, but also in collection centers in rural areas that are relatively close. “For example, the largest amount of drugs seized in 2022 occurred in Lomas de Sargentillo, a very small canton 45 minutes from Guayaquil,” Manrique said.
The drug-contaminated containers, dubbed “narco-bananas,” are mainly moved through the Port of Guayaquil, which is where most of Ecuador’s non-oil exports leave, Manrique added. “There aren’t enough personnel to review such volume of cargo, but, most of the contamination doesn’t take place at the port, but in storage centers,” she said.
The main destinations of banana shipments with the drug are European Union countries and the United States, Manrique said. “Bananas are Ecuador’s iconic fruit and are highly sought after by drug traffickers. Because of the volume of shipments and the routes, there is a permeable system, insufficient review of loads, and impunity that surrounds most drug seizures, which pose a threat to the country’s largest export fruit,” Manrique added.
Similarity with Colombia
On June 29, the Spanish Civil Guard reported the seizure, together with Colombian authorities, of more than 6.5 tons of cocaine hidden in containers of bananas that were loaded in Colombia and Ecuador.
According to a Spanish police report, during an operation dubbed Squid, authorities arrested 13 people, who were attempting to smuggle large quantities of cocaine hidden in banana containers from South America through the Port of Algeciras. According to the statement, the criminal organization was in charge of transporting cocaine in banana containers from Colombia and Ecuador.
Spanish authorities said that in order to bring the cocaine safely into the country, criminals sought the complicity of public officials in the Port of Algeciras and in the South American ports of origin. “The modus operandi consisted of transporting consignments of cocaine in banana containers from Colombia and Ecuador to the Port of Algeciras. Once it was extracted from the port facilities and on route to the legal destination it was diverted to a ship-warehouse where the pallets containing the cocaine were replaced by identical ones with legal banana goods.”
“Drug traffickers’ criminal activities also extended to robberies, extortion, and kidnappings of workers, producers, sales agents, exporting company, and port officials,” Hidalgo said. “Businessmen in the sector, both producers and exporters, decided to improve the cargo surveillance system through satellite tracking from the packing site to the port.”
“We are developing strategies that include cooperation and unity programs throughout the producer and exporter sector to make a single front in the face of this real danger,” Hidalgo concluded. “We are coordinating with the Police’s National Anti-Narcotics Directorate to strengthen prevention protocols against cargo contamination and strengthen security in all processes of the banana export chain.”