Little attention is paid to Ecuador. The murder rate is low, and there are no drug cartels like those that have dominated the criminal landscape in Mexico and Colombia. Yet Ecuador is one of the world’s cocaine superhighways. This is how the international drug trade likes it. Low key, low profile.
Over a third of Colombia’s booming cocaine production now flows into Ecuador, according to Ecuadorean anti-narcotics sources. From the country’s ports, coastline and airports, it is then dispatched around the world, destined for the United States, Europe and even Asia and Oceania.
Behind this trade is a complex and fluid underworld of specialist groups and sub-contractors coordinated by the brokers of powerful transnational drug trafficking organizations, and protected by corruption networks that penetrate deep into the state.
*This article is part of an InSight Crime investigation into how Ecuador became one of the global cocaine trade's primary dispatch points.
Cornerstone in the Supply Chain
Ecuador’s role in the drug trade dates back to the 1980s, when it was a transit route for Peruvian coca base trafficked into Colombia, and home to precursor chemical trafficking networks that supplied the Colombian laboratories that processed that base into cocaine.
However, it wasn’t until the turn of the century that Colombia’s quiet neighbor emerged as a cornerstone of the transnational cocaine supply chain. It began with the dollarization of the economy in response to an economic and political crisis in 2000, which instantly made Ecuador a money launderer's dream: a country bordering the world’s biggest cocaine producer that uses the currency of the world’s largest cocaine market.
Around the same time, a military assault and mass aerial spraying of coca crops in Colombia was pushing both the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and coca cultivation towards the Ecuador border. The FARC established control over cocaine production in the region, and began supplying traffickers from the Norte del Valle Cartel, who opened up routes into and out of Ecuador. The Mexicans soon wanted in on the action, and Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo," ordered his lieutenants to set up their own networks in the country.
SEE ALSO: Ecuador News and Profile
The convergence of these underworld forces on Ecuador coincided with a turning point in both the country’s political and criminal history: the 2006 presidential election that brought Rafael Correa to power.
Correa’s administration would prove a paradox. He oversaw a dramatic fall in violence and record drug seizures while bringing in an era of unprecedented political stability. But his government was plagued by drug trafficking scandals, and his strongman style weakened the capacity of the Ecuadorean state and civil society to resist drug trafficking.
One of Correa’s first moves as president was to end the lease of the US naval base in Manta -- an election promise made to the FARC in return for campaign financing, according to recovered guerrilla communications, although Correa denies all knowledge of this. The decision created a huge blind spot in Ecuador’s waters and skies that was soon filled with drug boats and planes.
The closure of Manta was just the start of an antagonistic foreign policy approach that saw his government fall out with both Colombia and the United States. As a result, anti-narcotics cooperation with both the supply and demand countries Ecuador is caught between was pared back to a bare minimum.
Correa’s domestic policies also created space for drug trafficking to flourish. He politicized the judiciary, using it as a tool to take down opponents. He also directed the security forces and intelligence units away from combating organized crime, and instead turning them on his political adversaries, according to police and intelligence sources, and cowed the press and non-governmental watchdogs with his fiery rhetoric and legal action.
Whether by accident, design, or both, Correa’s administration lowered Ecuador’s resilience to drug trafficking at a crucial moment. Over a decade on from his election, and Ecuador is now an organized crime haven and arguably the main dispatch point for Colombian cocaine outside of Colombia itself.
Drug Trafficking Routes
There are two pathways cocaine takes through Ecuador -- the Pacific route and the Amazon route.
The Pacific route is largely supplied by cocaine produced in Nariño, the border department that has more coca than anywhere else in Colombia. Drugs either enter Ecuador on small boats navigating the tangled jungle waterways that converge on the Mataje river separating Nariño from the Ecuadorean province of Esmeraldas, or hidden in vehicles crossing the Rumichaca international bridge into the province of Carchi.
Shipments are collected at stash points near the border. Drugs that cross into Esmeraldas are hidden on properties and beaches dotting the Esmeraldas coastline, while loads that move through Carchi are stored on at farms and ranches in the province of Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas. Some loads are then moved by boats that hug the coastline and hide in craggy inlets. Most of the drugs, however, are moved by road, stashed in commercial trucks, private vehicles and even public transport.
The Amazon route is mostly supplied by cocaine from Putumayo, the Colombian department with the second highest levels of coca cultivation after Nariño, and leads through the Ecuadorean province of Sucumbíos.
The main border crossings are the San Miguel and Putumayo rivers, where small boats deposit loads at stash points in lawless underworld outposts, such as Puerto Nuevo, Puerto Mestanza, and Tarapoa. However, drugs also move directly across the San Miguel international bridge after being loaded into vehicles in Colombia. From Sucumbíos, traffickers take the country’s main highways to dispatch points.
Figures obtained from anti-narcotics sources, show that in 2018, 44 percent of drug seizures were destined for the United States, 22 percent for Europe, 4 percent for Central America, and one percent for each Asia and for Oceania, while 28 percent was unknown. The US market is mainly supplied by boats launched from the coast, and light aircraft, while cocaine is sent to Europe on contaminated cargo shipping.
Currently, the bulk of the cocaine shipped from Ecuador for the US market is dispatched from the coasts of Esmeraldas, Manabí, Santa Elena, and to a lesser extent Guayas and El Oro in motorboats, although traffickers also use fishing vessels, submersibles and the stripped-out boats with fibre-glass coverings that anti-narcotics authorities call Low-Profile Vehicles (LPV).
The trafficking often begins with a hijacking. Pirate crews lurk off the coast, preying on fishermen to steal their boats and outboard motors at the point of a gun. The boats are then manned with crews recruited from struggling fishing villages, where $30,000 for a five-day trip is an enticing proposition, despite the risk they will end up joining hundreds of other Ecuadorean fishermen in foreign prisons, or will be among the many others that disappear without a trace.
Traffickers then have a choice of three routes. From Esmeraldas they can make a direct run to Central America, but this brings them perilously close to US and Colombian patrols. Instead, most prefer to loop around either north or south of the Galapagos Islands. The most recent US National Drug Threat Assessment estimated that in 2017, 17 percent of all US-bound cocaine first passed around the Galapagos islands, up from just 4 percent in 2016, and 1 percent in 2015.
The boats traffickers use for the Pacific runs are not equipped for long-distance high seas travel and must refuel as many as six times along the way. The fuel is provided by fishing vessels, which leave the city of Manta laden with gasoline and a satellite phone and wait at pre-arranged locations. The fishing boats carry five tanks at a time, allowing them to refuel several boats. Each tank is sold for $35,000, potentially earning them $175,000 per 1-2-week trip.
The traffickers’ journeys usually end off the Pacific coasts of Mexico or Central America, above all Guatemala or Costa Rica. Here they may be met by boats to hand over loads, but fear of being violently double-crossed has fueled the use of GPS-enabled radio or satellite buoys. This allows them to drop their shipments overboard before passing the coordinates to the pickup crews, which find them by following the signals emitted by the buoys.
While coastal dispatches remain the main method for trafficking US-bound cocaine, the use of Ecuador as an air bridge is on the rise, a result, authorities believe, of increased pressure on maritime routes.
Traffickers mostly use Cessna aircraft that are stripped out and modified so they can carry more drugs and fuel, and are even capable of refueling themselves mid-air. These aircraft can carry between 400 and 700 kilos, and take around six hours to reach Costa Rica or Guatemala, where they either unload or refuel and continue to Mexico.
Planes take off using a variety of clandestine or improvised airstrips. Traffickers construct airstrips by leveling off land in isolated areas, use existing strips on private or commercial properties such as strips used for crop dusting planes on fruit plantations, or they use abandoned airports or even roads closed for construction.
For cocaine shipped to Europe, however, the main routes run through Ecuador’s ports: Puerto Bolivar, and above all, the country’s international trade hub of Guayaquil. Control of the ports is low, while corruption is high, and traffickers have an array of options for hijacking the freight that moves through them.
Some seek total control of the shipment by using front export companies as a façade for their shipments. These shell companies are set up in the names of frontmen, commonly people with few economic resources and no criminal background. In other cases they buy existing companies with long histories of clean exports to reduce the risk of them receiving anything but the most cursory inspection. Ostensibly legal export shipments are then arranged, and the cocaine is concealed within the products.
However, a more common technique is to contaminate legal shipments, hiding drugs in containers either before they enter the port, in the port or after the ships leave the docks.
To get their drugs into shipments before entering the port, traffickers target not the goods but the containers themselves. They pack drugs into compartments in the floor, ceiling or walls of empty containers in storage yards then use contacts in shipping companies to ensure their container is sent to a company planning an export to their target destination.
The containers may also be contaminated after entering the port district. Freight trucks with drugs hidden in secret compartments enter the district and move to known blind spots in security camera coverage to unload. Dock workers then break open containers and load the drugs among the legal produce. A cloned or fake custom seal is then put in place to mask the tampering.
Containers and even the ships themselves may also be contaminated after they have set sail. Smaller boats approach the ships in Guayaquil’s estuaries and pass the drugs on to contacts among the crew, who pack it into a container or a hiding place on board.
The Criminal Actors
The actors that run these drug routes are a combination of Ecuadorean, Colombian, Mexican and European criminal networks.
Colombian cocaine brokers, such as the criminal group La Constru in Putumayo and the mysterious drug trafficker known only as “El Contador” in Tumaco, negotiate deals in Colombia or in Ecuadorean criminal hubs such Lago Agrio near the Putumayo border, and Guayaquil.
The deals struck are for a quantity of cocaine “puesto en” -- or delivered to. For Mexican cartels in particular, the handover can be around the Colombian border. However, the Colombian traffickers can also arrange delivery to dispatch points in Ecuador or to handover points in Europe or off the coasts of Mexico and Central America.
These cocaine brokers sub-contract the work of sourcing and transporting cocaine to the criminal service providers that operate at each link in the chain.
In the frontier region, the key players are the networks left behind from the demobilization of the FARC, which are active on both sides of the border. Rearmed and criminalized guerrilla cells take charge of compiling loads in Colombia and ensure their safe transport into Ecuador. Trafficking is coordinated using the logistics and transport specialists and networks of corrupt officials that used to work trafficking FARC produced cocaine.
The transport networks handover to specialist Ecuadorean dispatch networks. These sophisticated, low-profile organizations are led by individual traffickers, many of whom live disguised among regional social, economic and political elites.
These traffickers organize the logistics of a shipment: coordinating corruption networks, recruiting smugglers, securing fuel, equipment and any other supplies needed. They also hire armed actors to provide security, collect debts and carry out assassinations.
The different trafficking methods all demand different logistical capacities and contacts, and although some traffickers have been known to work with different methods, most are specialized.
Coastal shipments are organized by crime clans, many of which are concentrated in the city of Manta. These networks recruit fishermen from coastal communities to man their boats, organize refueling stops, and equip the boats with communications equipment and supplies.
In addition to securing access to airstrips, networks sending shipments by small aircraft provide fuel through corrupt private sector or state contacts, communications equipment that allows them to coordinate with the incoming pilots, and cloned license plates of planes with permission to fly in the area where they will be landing.
For port dispatches, the key is corrupt contacts. To contaminate containers before loading, they need contacts in the shipping companies, above all with the container dispatchers that control which containers get sent to which companies, and in the storage yards so they can work to load up the drugs. If they contaminate containers within the port district, they need truck drivers, stevedores, security guards and the winch operators that have access to information on the movements and locations of containers.
A Sea of Corruption
These traffickers and the routes they control are protected by corruption networks of astonishing reach.
Police and military not only wave drug shipments through their controls, they have even provided security for drug shipments and their traffickers, transported cocaine in their official vehicles and are even believed to have carried out assassinations, according to intelligence sources.
If traffickers are caught, then most are able to buy their way out of trouble. Sources describe how they pay off prosecutors and judges to sabotage investigations and to obtain favorable rulings. Traffickers are also able to call upon politicians on their payroll, who pull the necessary stings to put an end to their problems.
Although such corruption has been present in Ecuador as long as drug trafficking, official and expert sources all concur that under Rafael Correa it reached epidemic proportions, taking root in all branches of the state.
The 2017 election of President Lenin Moreno promised a new approach. Moreno reached out to the international partners estranged by Correa. Renewed US support has already vastly increased Ecuador’s capacity to track drug boats, while close cooperation with Colombia enabled the two countries to hunt down the border region’s most wanted criminal and dismantle a large part of his network.
Moreno also oversaw the arrest of senior political figures on corruption charges, and promised to investigate the ties between Rafael Correa and underworld groups, although Correa supporters and other critics denounce this as a political purge masquerading as an anti-corruption drive.
However, when a wave of public protests snowballed into violent riots in October 2019, the political terrain again shifted. Moreno blamed Correa loyalists and groups with links to organized crime and drug trafficking for hijacking what had begun as an indigenous protest against fuel subsidies. While those claims remain unverified, one thing is clear: the polarization and political crisis the protests unleashed now threaten to swallow his administration, pushing drug trafficking off the agenda and back to where it thrives -- in the shadows.
Top Image: Cocaine hidden in banana cargo at the Guayaquil port. Photo courtesy of anti-narcotics unit.
*Additional reporting was contributed by Mayra Alejandra Bonilla.
*This article is part of an InSight Crime investigation into how Ecuador became one of the global cocaine trade's primary dispatch points.