The arrest of a Colombian drug lord, leader of the little-known gang "La Cordillera," has shed light on the group's dedication to controlling the thriving domestic drug markets in both Colombia and Ecuador.
Ecuadorean police say that Jhon Jairo Vasco Lopez, alias "El Nico," controlled a network of drug dealers and hitmen in Quito, according to Ecuadorean newspaper El Comercio. Aside from dominating the Quito market, Vasco has also been dubbed the "king" of Colombia's micro-trafficking business, especially in the central Coffee Region.
Vasco was detained April 20 in Guayaquil's international airport after arriving from Argentina, for carrying false identity papers. He is also wanted on homicide charges in Colombia.
Police told El Comercio that Vasco and his organization, La Cordillera, are believed to control much of Quito's local drug trade. The group oversaw drug deals in the neighborhoods of El Mariscal, a wealthy tourist area, and the southern shopping districts of Villa Flora and El Recreo, police said.
La Cordillera has also been linked to the August 2010 murder of an Ecuadorean national and the November 2010 murder of four Africans in El Mariscal. The deaths are now believed to be related to disputes over control of the local drug "plaza" in Quito.
Vasco's arrest is a reminder of how lucrative local, urban markets can be in Latin America, especially for drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) who may lack access to international smuggling routes. La Cordillera first emerged in 2008, essentially acting as the local mafia in the Colombian city of Pereira. That La Cordillera reportedly exported a similar model to Quito -- running the drug trade and offering assassins-for-hire in several sectors of a single city -- could indicate how big the profits are in these domestic markets.
According to the U.S. State Department's 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, Ecuador has a "increasing problem with domestic drug consumption;" the report noted a similar increase in Colombia. The growth of domestic demand for drugs is in part responsible for driving up violence in cities and towns, as local gangs battle for control of the micro-trafficking profits.
If addiction and drug use continue to spike in the region, more DTOs following the model of La Cordillera may emerge, which are dedicated less to the export of cocaine overseas and more to feeding local demand.
Ecuador has long been a key transit country for cocaine exports, and is essential for the operations of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia -- FARC) and reportedly for Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel. Ecuadorean police reported the seizure of 18.1 tons of cocaine in 2010, 82 percent of which was reportedly intended for sale overseas. Only 3.1 tons of cocaine were seized in urban areas.