HomeNewsAnalysisEcuador's Cocaine Pirates: Part II

Ecuador's Cocaine Pirates: Part II


In the second of this two-part series, authors Alejandra S. Inzunza and Pablo Ferri write about the impact of foreign crime and cocaine transit on the province of Manabi in Ecuador, particularly their effects in the fishing villages.

It was months after his fishing boat was hijacked at sea by drug traffickers that Marco Sanchez -- a boat taxi-man from the Pacific Ecuadorean village of Jaramijo -- saw his cousin Jorge again. Jorge, who had been on the boat with him and joined the traffickers, was by then driving a new red car and handing out cash to locals.

Jorge dressed well, had remodeled his small house in the village, and bragged to everyone that he had left poverty behind and would never have to fish again. He did not share details of his work, but he had become violent and always carried a pistol at his hip.

*This article originally ran in Domingo El Universal and was translated and reprinted with permission from the authors. Read the original here. This is the second in a two-part series. Read the first part here.

"He drew a lot of attention. He suddenly wanted to fix everything by throwing money at it, and he didn’t listen to us when we told him to get out of that business," said Marco, as he pulled the motor chain on his taxi-boat.

"And what happened to him?" we asked Marco.

"He's been in jail for more than half a year," he said sharply.

A Platform for International Crime

Since 2007, Ecuador's prison have begun to fill up with people accused of trafficking drugs, many of them being held in preventive detention as they await trial. According to the Organization of American States (OAS), that year the prison population reached 18,675, a record.

As of October last year, the number of prisoners had risen to 24,203, representing more than twice the capacity of Ecuador's jails. According to Ecuadorean authorities, the growth of the prison population was directly related to the increase in cocaine seizures.

"There haven't been any official reports claiming the fishermen are used by the narcos, but there have been informal reports, which are also based on intelligence information. I assume the traffickers approach the fishermen and offer them money. It is most likely, but we don't have evidence," said Jose Marcos, the head of the Manta port.

Occasionally, they find Mexicans and Colombians. In 2012, Marcos said, three Mexican suspects were found on the high seas by naval authorities who were patrolling the area in search of a fisherman who had fallen into the water. More recently, they found a shipment of cocaine in the Caraquez bay, which authorities linked to foreign organizations.

Fernando Carrion, a researcher for the Latin American School of Social Science, which goes by its Spanish acronym FLACSO, says weak port security and corruption have facilitated the establishment of transnational organizations in the country. On May 13, 2013, an airplane of Mexican origin crashed in Manabi. It was flying with no lights at a low altitude to avoid radar detection and carried a suitcase with about $1.3 million on board. One week later, a cocaine laboratory was found very close to where the incident had occurred.

"Ecuador has become a platform for international crime. We have stopped being a simple storage and transit point, and have become a platform for cartels to operate from," said Carrion, who has done studies on the Sinaloa Cartel and how it operates like a transnational business similar to Volkswagen, Nike or General Motors.

Packing Drugs, Not Fish

On one dusty street in the La Aurora sector, 10 minutes by car from the center of Manta, the intervention and rescue team of the national police recently raided a fish-packing plant. Nobody knew for certain what was happening. The doors of the factory were closed, and it was only from above, through some small holes in the fence, that a local group of journalists managed to take some photographs for the evening news that showed a couple of police vehicles, black vests, camouflage uniforms, and firearms, among other things. The police kept quiet until the following day, but the reporters were quick to assume it might be a front company for laundering drug money.

That episode occurred in October 2012. Just one month before, on August 30, the police had searched the premises of another four fish packing companies. In May last year, the company Alpusa -- also a fish packer -- were visited by the police at their packaging plant for alleged drug trafficking. Authorities had found drugs in a container of fish in Guayaquil days earlier and linked it to the company. This was the third time officials had searched Alpusa in a short time span. The first two times, it was for suspected money laundering.

According to figures from the Financial Analysis Unit (UAF), $2.2 billion dollars are laundered in Ecuador each year, mainly through the real estate sector. Raids on fish packing plants have become a routine affair in Manta. With 16 companies involved in this sector, the fishing industry provides a perfect disguise for drug trafficking and money laundering activities. The industry moves a lot of money, and it is easy to hide the presence of illicit activities within this cash flow.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering

Around the same time of the fish packing raids, in October 2012, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, Lucia Fernandez, stated: "The problem here is more serious than it seems. When they discover drugs, it is because a deal went bad and somebody squealed. Once in a while, they find something, but it doesn't mean anything."

Fernandez appeared nervous as she spoke.

The Criminal Landscape

Fernandez's office is located in the center of Manta, a straight line of streets on a slope, fed by the Pacific breeze. In August last year, the police arrested Jorge Dominguez, alias "Palustre," the regional head of the Colombian criminal group known as the Rastrojos, just yards from her building.

As heirs of the Norte del Valle Cartel (NDVC), the Rastrojos have become one of the most powerful organizations in Colombia, particularly in the southern Pacific region. In Ecuador, according to police sources cited by newspaper El Comercio, Palustre absorbed the principal drug trafficking structures, held territorial control over illicit activities and laundered money using front companies.

Prior to his detention, "sicariato" -- murders for hire -- a crime never before seen in Ecuador, became common in Manta. From 2008 to 2011, half of the 1,100 murders committed in Manabi occurred in Manta, Montecristi and Jaramijo. In 2012, 62 people were murdered in Manta, representing a homicide rate of 20 per 100,000 residents, double the level considered "epidemic" by the United Nations. Ecuador President Rafael Correa recently dispatched the military to the region to try to quell the violence.

Authorities said there are a couple of local gangs, the Choneros and the Queseros, who share responsibility for the increase in violence in Manabi. The Choneros and Queseros began a war in 2005, when the Queseros murdered the wife of alias "Teniente España," the leader of the Choneros. This last group subdued its enemies and took control over the region. President Correa said the Choneros were one of the biggest criminal organizations in the history of Manabi.

In recent years, the national police have arrested dozens of suspected members of the Choneros, and the homicide rate fell last year in Manabi. But there are still some who doubt these captures will be effective over the long term.

"Although the police think that by throwing them in jail they are dismantling the organization, I think putting them in jail is strengthening them," FLACSO's Carrion said. 

Carrion made reference to Mexico and Colombia, where the jails, instead of destroying the networks, have served as a way for organized crime groups to reinforce their ties.

One person who we interviewed in Manta told us the Choneros are common criminals, and that those who really pull the strings are others, who are using the Choneros. But the group is strong. So strong that they have links with the police, the justice system. They control Manabi and Manta, though they started in Chone -- a municipality near Manta, where they got their name. Their status as "narcos" and their ties with the Sinaloa Cartel gives them control over the ports.

The Vice-minister for Internal Security, Javier Cordova, told local media that the Rastrojos and the Sinaloa Cartel are the foreign groups with the greatest presence in the country. This was reinforced with the arrest of Palustre and of Cesar Vernaza Quiñones, alias "El Empresario," who led the Templados, a gang allegedly linked to the Sinaloa Cartel, whose famous leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was captured recently in Mexico.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profiles

On April 18, 2013, Vernaza was arrested in Cali, Colombia, along with 13 others, for drug trafficking, conspiracy, homicide and extortion. He had escaped two months earlier from the high security prison La Roca in Guayaquil. Around that time, the Ecuadorean criminal published two videos on YouTube. In one of them, he appears with a yellow shirt, watch, chain and gold ring, claiming his innocence. He also threatened Interior Minister Jose Serrano over social media. Nine Choneros members also participated in the jail break.

Murders in Manta

Pushed beyond its limits and scared by the homicides, Manta prohibited the circulation of motorcycles with more than one rider last year. (Gunmen riding double on motorcycles is a common method of murder.) The local government also handed out stickers with the words “Safe Motorcycle” (Moto Segura).

"We've seen what's happening in Mexico, and it's scaring us. Our society, without values and principles, is an easy prisoner to corruption. This is a major concern of the business sector," said Lucia Fernandez.

Ricardo Delgado, director of the local daily El Mercurio and president of the Manta Civic Board, said murder-for-hire is like a toxic cloud that suddenly broke over the city: "This emerged overnight, it was not normal for our city to see violent activities. Something is happening here."

During the days we spent there, we heard of various neighbors killed by firearms: the secretary general of the taxi union, Lenin Chiriboga, who was also Mr. Delgado’s predecessor on the Civic Board; Byron Alexander Velez, alias “El Mellizo,” killed by two guys on a motorcycle, with five bullets; the 17-year-old Victor Alejandro Cedeño, also murdered by two men on a motorcycle, while he was inside a store attempting to buy credit for his cell phone…

It is a long list. The hired assassins have even offered their services online.

"Do the people collecting your debts bother you?" they wrote in a recent ad. "Do they refuse to pay and laugh at you? Do you want to get rid of the people who are in your way?"

Many Manta residents were aware that they could solve their problems just by making a phone call or sending an email. Hired killings continued to expand in the region until the Correa government managed to decrease murder rates last year with the presence of the army. The city calmed down. But out at sea, there are still kidnapped fishermen, abandoned boats and the occasional plastic covered packet that the men find while they fish. In the coastal neighborhoods that smell of salt and fish, between one drink and another, the men prefer to keep silent about what happens at sea. That is where the pirates are.

*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 second in a two-part series. See Part I here.

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