The Napo River winds eastbound 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 major 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, but these two 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 along 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. Its strategic equatorial location by the Pacific Ocean on the west and wedging 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 changed to much brighter colors. The Ecuadorean Military has strengthened its presence in the area, thanks to an investment of US $3 billion in infrastructure, equipment vehicles, boats, and sustainment of troops in the area by the country’s government. 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 (OPCMD 1N), 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 to the 19th “Napo” Jungle Brigade based in El Coca, in August 2012, Brigadier General Celso Andrade, commander of the IV “Amazonas” Division of the Ecuadorean Army (IV-DIV), explained that the Ecuadorean Armed Forces reestablished their focus from the eastern and southern borders with Peru to the northern border with Colombia in 2005. “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, they work closely with their Colombian counterparts to control the effects that sharing a permeable boundary can cause.
In addition, an inset of support in the form of $100 million from the United States in the last twelve years has also helped the country’s Armed Forces reinforce and expand control of their 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, through a total package approach destined to the purchase of individual equipment, tactical vehicles, riverine tactical boats, infrastructure projects, logistics, operations, maintenance, and riverine and tactical training.
The Counter Narcotics Riverine Program is run by the Ecuadorean Armed Forces Counter Narcotics 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 of the northern border – including 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 – to 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 their 48th Front.
The patrol boatsare all designed to carry a crew of between eight and 12 Soldiers specialized to execute operations to protect the safety of the populace and sovereignty of their country over Ecuadorean waterways.
Captain Oscar Abad, of the Ecuadorean Army’s Jungle and Counterinsurgency School, told Diálogo that seven fully armed and equipped crewmembers 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 that may be disabled in case of an emergency or attack,” he explained. In addition, he added, each mission requires the deployment of four boats at a time in order to execute thorough searches and actions.
All four models have been specially designed or upgraded to have low-drive technologies with jet drive engines positioned underneath to facilitate better access through shallow, winding waterways that commonly carry debris like garbage, logs, roots, foliage, etc.
Ecuador is only one of the countries to establish a stronger military presence along their waterways in recent years, and subsequently to be confronted with countering drug-trafficking. 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 to witness a demonstration of the Ecuadorean Armed Forces’ achievements in this regard in August, 2012.
During the event, Ecuadorean Army Colonel E. Acosta, commander of the 19th “Napo” Jungle Brigade, told Diálogo, “It is very important to be the regional pioneers in this respect. It’s significant to have our neighbors and partner nations visit our facilities and see what we do because it allows us to exchange information and become better professionals in this common fight.”
Commander Efrain Mann of the Honduran Navy, explained that Honduras has an established riverine program of their own. “We employ boats with external turbo 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”.
For his part, Belize Defense Force Major Charlton Roches told Diálogo that Belize is soon to receive two “Pantano” model boats for use in their 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 non-existent in the northern border area and –as a cherry on top, 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 trafficking jointly.”