Recent massive cocaine seizures in Ecuador are an indication of the country's increased importance as a trans-shipment hub for drug exports.
On July 7, authorities reported seizing almost two tons of cocaine, hidden among crates of pineapples, in Guayaquil, Ecuador's most important port city. Two Colombians and an Ecuadorean were arrested at the scene.Three days earlier, police reported finding 741 kilos of cocaine that three men were trying to smuggle from Manta, a city some 100 miles north of Guayaquil.
In 2009, Ecuador seized a record amount of cocaine: 65 metric tons, second only to Colombia, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In 2010, however, interdictions dropped sharply, to just 18 tons of cocaine, police said. The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, estimated that just 14.8 tons of cocaine were seized last year.
This decrease in seizures may have been caused by the closure of a U.S.-controlled airbase in Manta. The city was once a key hub for cocaine exports from Colombia's now-extinct Norte del Valle Cartel. Since 1999, the U.S. operated an air base in Manta, where surveillance flights were intended to monitor cocaine shipments along Ecuador's Pacific coast. President Rafael Correa allowed the 10-year lease on the air base to expire in 2009. Ecuador's counter-narcotic efforts have suffered as a result.
The State Department said maritime activity by drug traffickers in Ecuador increased by over 200 percent in 2010, during which time the Ecuadorean Navy and Coast Guard did not succesfully interdict a single shipment of drugs. According to a 2010 report by think-tank the International Assesment and Strategy Center, the Manta station supported 822 counternarcotic missions in 2008, resulting in the seizure of 29 tons of cocaine. Now, it appears that the Ecuadorean security forces may lack the resources to compensate for the closure of the air base.
However, the security forces may be slightly improving their interdiction abilities, judging from the rate of seizures so far in 2011. During the first half of the year, the country seized 11.3 tons of drugs, a ten percent increase from the same period last year, according to Ecuadorean police. Over half of the cargo -- about 7.5 tons -- was found in Guayas Province, where Guayaquil is based, while just 267 kilos were found in Manta. Alongside Manta, Guayaquil has long been a key hub for the stockpiling, storage and trans-shipment of cocaine in Ecuador.
Still, when looking at the 2011 statistics, the question is whether Ecuador is now intercepting more cocaine because the security forces are focused on better interdiction efforts, or whether the sheer amount of drugs passing through Ecuador means 11.3 tons is just the a fraction of the real weight. The U.S. State Department believes that 220 tons of cocaine actually pass through Ecuador each year. Colombian criminal organizations are still very active in Ecuador, while a cell of the Sinaloa Cartel is also believed to be based here. Alongside Ecuador's relaxation of visa requirements for almost every country in the world, the closing of the Manta base may have also encouraged drug traffickers to set up shop in port cities like Manta and Guayaquil.
But it's worth asking whether focusing on interdiction numbers is the best way to measure Ecuador's progress in the fight against drug trafficking. Interdiction alone is not the most cost-effective strategy to stem the flow of drugs, especially if it is not accompanied by other measures like judicial and police reform. Evidence from bodies like the UNODC and the U.S. State Department both point to Ecuador's declining ability to discourage drug traffickers from operating here. But criticizing -- or praising -- Ecuador for improved or declining interdiction rates may be missing the point: interdicting a drug shipment is fundamentally akin to sticking a finger in a leaky dike.