a new nerve center for the global drug trade

a new nerve center for the global drug trade


Ecuador has become an unlikely hub for the global drug trade, flooding the world with Colombian cocaine while bloodshed rages between a complex web of local gangs backed by the Mexican and European mafia.

“The cocaine that leaves Ecuador’s ports goes all over the world, mostly to the United States and Europe, but also to Asia and Australia,” said Chris Dalby, an investigator with organized crime think-tank Insight Crime.

Ecuador is not known to have large drug plantations, cocaine refining laboratories, or large drug cartels.

Instead, it has become a rallying point for foreign mafia, raising the stakes for local gangs who brutally kill each other while vying for valuable alliances and control of drug routes.

In September, the United States listed Ecuador among the top 22 drug-producing or transit countries in the world.

Geography and corruption are among the main reasons one of Latin America’s smaller countries has become a hotspot for transnational organized crime.

Ecuador borders the world’s two largest cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru, who produce 1,400 and 400 tons of the drug, respectively, according to UN estimates.

The major port of Guayaquil, from where most drugs are shipped abroad – often in containers of bananas or in legal shipments from shell companies – is said to be less controlled.

– Story with Colombian guerrillas –

Ecuador is “a natural starting point for Colombian cocaine,” Dalby told AFP.

This is largely because it has long been a haven for Colombian armed groups such as the guerrillas of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

For decades, prior to a 2016 peace deal that led to their demobilization, the FARC controlled Colombia’s coca-growing areas and acted as intermediaries between farmers and drug traffickers.

Ecuadorian gangs would transport the drugs “from the border to different ports,” Dalby said.

However, patterns of criminal activity in the region have changed in recent years, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said earlier this month.

Cocaine production has boomed in Colombia, where dissident FARC rebels who have not laid down arms have started producing cocaine in the south and taking it themselves to Ecuador by “river or road,” Dalby said.

According to the ICG, Ecuador’s move to dollarize its economy in 2000 and weak fiscal controls also made it a “hotspot for laundering illicit profits.”

According to a UN report, Ecuador was home to the third-highest seizures of cocaine in 2020, with Colombia in first place, followed by the United States.

– Global Mafia Operation –

So who still has a finger in the pie?

A study by Colombia’s Organized Crime Observatory (OCCO) says Ecuadorian criminal groups have also forged alliances with powerful families that control drug cultivation in Peru.

A network of rivers connects Peru to southern Ecuador, facilitating the smuggling of goods and people.

The powerful Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation Mexican cartels also operate in Ecuador. There is also an increasing Balkan mafia presence in the country.

The Mexican and Balkan cartels have alliances with Colombian armed groups that organize the shipment of drugs to Ecuador.

Mathew Charles, the author of the OCCO study, told AFP there has been “fragmentation” of the drug business between buyers and sellers.

Before that, Italy’s feared ‘Ndrangheta mafia had had a strong influence on the Colombian drug trade.

The foreign mafia has forged alliances with local gangs such as the Chone Killers, the Choneros, Aguilas, Latin Kings or Los Lobos.

– prison headquarters –

The struggle for control among local gangs takes place in Ecuador’s prisons, mainly in Guayaquil.

In the city’s main prison complex, Guayas 1, each of the 12 blocks is controlled by a different gang.

Nearly 400 inmates have died in several cities since last year, most of them in Guayaquil, which was also hit by car bombs and shocking scenes of bodies hanging from bridges.

According to OCCO, what made the war bloodier was that Mexican gangs often paid their local counterparts for their services with guns instead of cash.

Bribing the police, military and prosecutors, mafia groups have turned to the kind of vicious violence typically seen in Colombia, Mexico and other countries, where high-ranking officials who target them are killed.

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