Ecuador has become a maritime drug transfer point for traffickers from Mexico and Colombia. The fishing boats are hijacked or used as service stations, and the ports are a major weak point for the government of President Rafael Correa.
For years, Marco Sanchez worked carrying buckets full of fish from his colleagues' boats to the seashore in Jaramijo, a small town near San Pablo de Manta, or Manta, as this municipality in the Manabi province -- one of the most important port cities in Ecuador -- is known.
Marco cleaned the fish and carried them to the center to sell, until one day he was offered a position as a cook on a fishing boat. He was 24 years old and had a son. For a long time, he had been tired of cleaning fish, so he quickly accepted the job, although his father, a retired sailor, had warned him about the dangers of the sea: the storms, the 18 days or more without touching land, the diseases, the mechanical problems. And yes, also the drug traffickers.
In recent years, the sailors had begun to tell stories in Ecuador's ports about the "narcos," pirates with AK-47s that assaulted ships in the middle of the night, and hijacked them for drug transport or stole gasoline and provisions, leaving them alone in the middle of nowhere until another fisherman rescued them. According to these tales, some seduced the fishermen with large sums of money. Those who attempted to confront the narcos never saw land again.
Marco did not hesitate. He decided to join the crew that his cousin Jorge worked with, searching for spotted dog-fish, which are abundant in Peruvian waters. His mother had recently died in Guayaquil, so the money would be a much needed support for his family. Anything was better than selling fish while his friends were out on the high seas.
One dark night, a few months later, a small ship that supposedly needed help approached them. Seven armed men climbed on board. Hidden and silent, Marco Sanchez saw them load the boat with plastic covered packets and suitcases full of cash.
"You can help us, or you won't be going anywhere!" said one of the men with a Colombian accent.
The fishermen surrendered themselves to their assailants, who brought the boat closer to the other vessel where they had left their merchandise. They carried radios and knew the coordinates of their location perfectly. The small, supposedly damaged boat, was then abandoned.
Before leaving, the drug traffickers offered a deal to the novice cook: "Come cook for us. You'll have more money than you've ever imagined."
Marco Sanchez remained silent. The pirates made jokes, saying that he probably was not much of a cook anyway, and then left. Marco did not remember ever being so afraid. He only imagined that at any moment, they would throw him overboard.
"If you get involved in that, you will make a lot of money, but afterwards, there are only two ways out: you get killed or you go to jail," said the former cook, a thin man, with a three-day mustache and slanted eyes, who retired several years ago and now works in a boat-taxi bringing people from one ship to another off the coast of Jaramijo. His cousin Jorge left to work with the drug traffickers.
When The Drug Pirates Took Over the Seas
Jaramijo smells of fish. The whole town's activity revolves around the sea. Its coastline is full of tuna fishermen, shrimpers, ferries and speedboats. Men with weather-beaten skin and calloused hands fix nets and prepare for their next outing. It is said that the Ecuadoreans of this region preserve the same qualities as their ancestors -- the Hara-miasu and Hara-way, Polynesian tribes that settled here centuries ago -- of being able to navigate the open seas for weeks and return safely without a compass.
In Jaramijo and neighboring Manta, where one of the country's most important ports is located -- as well as at other key points along the Ecuadorean coast, such as Guayaquil, Bolivar or Esmeraldas -- drug trafficking has been present for years. Until 2009, the US Forward Operating Location (FOL) post was located in Manta. Over the course of 10 years, this facility carried out some 7,726 anti-drug operations in 11 Pacific countries and managed to sink 46 commercial ships on the Ecuadorean coast for suspected participation in this illicit activity, according to the Latin America Association for Human Rights. The current government of President Rafael Correa decided not to renew the agreement that Ecuador had with the United States for a decade and to close the base in order to make the fight against drug trafficking a national matter, similarly to Venezuela and Bolivia, who have also dispensed with US government support. In the place the base was located, there are now only some abandoned restaurants and empty night clubs.
The withdrawal of the military attracted more drug traffickers, principally Colombian criminal groups like the Rastrojos and the Urabeños, in addition to cells of Mexican cartels such as the Sinaloa Cartel, the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, according to Fernando Carrion, a research professor at the Latin American social science research center FLACSO, based in Quito. The country that marks the geographical division between the northern and southern hemispheres became one of the principal drug transit routes at a continental level. A US State Department report says that some 120 tons of cocaine pass through Ecuador each year, in addition to chemicals used in the production of drugs.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Criminal Migration
"We have registered that 270 tons pass through Ecuador, and furthermore, in the past year 17 laboratories were found, the majority in Manabi, which is a region with a lot of vegetation, difficult to access and rough terrain," said Daniel Ponton, coordinator of the Latin American Security and Democracy Network.
Ecuador suffers from its geography. It is located between two of the three principal coca leaf producers, Peru and Colombia, and also shares a border with Brazil, the world's second largest consumer of cocaine. Its Pacific coastline serves as one of the principal routes used to traffic drugs to Central America and the United States.
The ports are the principal weak point for the Correa government. Each year, more than 712,000 containers leave the ports, but only a small percentage pass through security controls. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Container Control Program, less than two percent of the containers sent around the world each year -- some 500 million -- are inspected.
While the FOL was in Manta, numerous operations were performed to detect illegal vessels, but these decreased after the base was moved. Former Defense Minister Jose Gallardo said that the removal of the US base was an error because the number of aerial controls and land patrols radically decreased.
It was then that the drug pirates took over the seas.
How the Narcos Operate
"There are ships that stop you on the high seas asking for fish. They approach on that pretext and then they come on board. If they stop you sometime before dawn, it is because they are drug traffickers," said Raul, a fisherman, as he cleaned the day's products before sunset in Jaramijo, while his son played in the prow of the boat.
Like other boats, the pirates hang the Ecuadorean flag in order to conceal their presence. They go from boat to boat, transporting drugs or money, and in search of provisions and gasoline. Some steal boat motors, which are in high demand in this region. Sometimes, they only need to camouflage themselves amid other crews to confuse the police.
Raul Paladines, a graying Manabi native, with a thick build and a wide nose and chin, is the owner of Puerto Atun (Tuna Port), a private territory between Manta and Jaramijo dedicated to lobster, sardine and tuna fishing. As he sat at the bar on the terrace of his office in the port -- where he drinks with his friends -- he said he had to reinforce security on his boats in order to deter pirates and contract private agents in order to prevent his ships from being contaminated. He also installed surveillance cameras in order to know what was happening out at sea.
"Before, when a ship came near to ask for help or for fish, which happened often, you always stopped to help them. There was solidarity at sea, but now you can't. You don't know who is approaching or if their boat is 'botado' -- as we describe ships contaminated with drugs," said the businessman from his seaside terrace, from where the last of the whales passing by the coast for the season could be seen. At the end of the port's pier sit the remains of a tuna fishing boat that sunk months earlier.
Paladines said the binnacles on his vessels have registered various attempts by the drug traffickers to intercept his tuna boats. "Luckily, they haven't been successful," he said.
Last year, 53 tons of drugs were seized in Ecuador. Jose Marco, captain of the Manta port, said there were "signs" that drugs were leaving by sea from the Manabi province and later shipped north, but that there was "no proof" to show that the containers leaving from its piers had been contaminated.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Ecuador
"We know that there are boats and ships dedicated to that on the seas, but we have not been able to prove it. Many fishing vessels are used as floating gas stations for the drug boats, but there is a big difference between official acknowledgment and legal proof." Marcos said that some GPS devices have been able to track ships that make various stops in distinct parts of the ocean, which feeds suspicions about the floating gas stations. "A small boat does not have the capacity to even reach the Galapagos without receiving provisions at sea."
In 2012, antinarcotics police found 360 kilos of drugs abandoned on the Punta Blanca beach in Manta. Two weeks earlier, a drug consignment weighing 150 kilos was found and two people were arrested for transporting cocaine in La Tiñosa, to the south of Manta. On more than one occasion, the fishermen have found bags full of drugs.
This is what happened on February 12, 2006, when, following a confrontation at sea between alleged drug traffickers and naval authorities, some men that were traveling in a speedboat threw plastic covered packets into the sea, which were never recovered. Days later, a group of fishermen from the fishing village El Matal, also in Manabi, found some 20 packages of cocaine. The case, which has repeated itself on various occasions, inspired the film "The Fisherman," a successful Ecuadorean film. It stars Andres Crespo, who tells the story of "Blanquito," a man who, after finding one of these packets, decides to change his life and search for his father, and is forced to confront Colombian drug traffickers.
*Reprinted and translated with permission from Alejandra S. Inzunza and Pablo Ferri. Follow them on Twitter at @Dromomanos, and see more of their work at https://www.dromomanos.com. This article originally appeared in Domingo El Universal. This is the first in a two-part series.