In the midst of bloody disputes between local gangs in cahoots with large international mafias, Ecuador is positioning itself as a hub for cocaine trafficking to the United States and Europe, the Ecuadorian daily El Tiempo reported.
“The boom in violence in Ecuador converges with the impact of COVID-19, the deterioration of living conditions, corruption in state institutions, and the struggles between delinquency and organized crime,” Carla Álvarez, an expert in citizen security and professor at the Institute of Higher National Studies in Ecuador (IAEN), told Diálogo on December 10. “That’s the breeding ground for this explosion of violence.”
Attacks against police stations, kidnappings, beheadings, murders of journalists, and attacks against civilians highlight the evolution of this phenomenon in the provinces of Esmeraldas, Manabí, Guayas, Santo Domingo, Santa Elena, Los Ríos, and El Oro, which are part of the drug trafficking corridor to the Pacific, Spanish newspaper El País reported. From January to early November 2022, Ecuador recorded a homicide rate of 20.59 per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest in its history, the Spanish daily said.
The Ecuadorian National Police (PNE) attributes 80 percent of these murders to clashes among criminal groups for control of cocaine distribution and export, international nongovernmental organization Crisis Group indicated in an early November 2022 report. Prisons are where organized crime groups plot their battles.
“The problem becomes more complex […] in the provinces with the worst social development indicators […], where organized crime and drug trafficking are able to penetrate a lot more,” Diego Pérez, a security expert and IAEN professor, told Diálogo. “Ecuador is a key [drug] collection center for the region.”
Through the Ecuadorian coast, international drug traffickers export tons of cocaine produced in Colombia and Peru. As such, Ecuador and its port city of Guayaquil have become the epicenter of the region’s drug violence, according to a study by the Colombian Observatory of Organized Crime (OCCO).
The study states that Colombian cocaine comes primarily from dissident groups of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and Peruvian cocaine is acquired from the many family clans that control cocaine cultivation and production in Peru.
Local Ecuadorian gangs such as the Chone Killers, the Choneros, or Los Lobos enter this criminal playing field. In their quest for control of drug routes, they fight to the death on the streets and in prisons, especially in Guayaquil, news network Biobio Chile reported.
OCCO also highlighted the large presence in Ecuadorian territory of the Mexican Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels, as well as criminal groups from Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, Russia, and Serbia.
Local gangs recruit teenagers who live in disadvantaged communities to collect extortion fees or transport drugs and weapons around the country, but many are used as hired killers, the OCCO study indicated.
“Ecuador is in an extreme situation. We still have a margin to salvage the situation. A narrower margin every day, which depends on the nature and immediacy with which decisions are made,” Pérez said.
In its daily battle to curb narcotrafficking, on December 3, in the port of Guayaquil, the PNE seized more than 2.2 tons of cocaine hidden in a container of bananas, which was bound for Sweden.
Throughout 2022, the PNE seized some 180 tons of drugs and dismantled more than 175 criminal organizations linked to international and domestic drug trafficking. Eighty percent of this drug was cocaine, reported Argentine news site Infobae.
The United States is among the countries that recognize Ecuador’s achievements in drug interdiction and destruction and pledged to support the fight against malicious actors and strengthen citizen security, Ecuadorian newspaper La Hora reported.
As such, the U.S. trained PNE officers and prosecutors November 7-18, 2022, in post-blast investigation techniques to bring together multidisciplinary investigation teams, the U.S. Embassy in Quito said in a statement.
On November 24, Ecuador and Mexico also reactivated the Cooperation Committee against Drug Trafficking and Drug Addiction under four categories: prevention and reduction of the illicit demand for narcotics and psychotropic substances, control and supply, suppression of illicit trafficking, and treatment and rehabilitation, Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio reported.
“Right now, Ecuador needs very strong cooperation with Colombia, to strengthen and improve border security mechanisms and police cooperation,” Álvarez said. “In addition, political agreements are required at all levels to adopt urgent measures, such as recognizing and accepting that Ecuador is facing an existential threat, and therefore they have to respond to that extent.”