In Ecuador's southern city of Guayaquil, organized crime has created a vicious circle of drug consumption: violent microtrafficking networks peddle drugs on the city streets creating the addicts that fill illegal and abusive “rehabilitation” clinics set up to milk profits from their misery.
The product that keeps this circle turning is a heroin-based concoction invented by criminal economists and marketers: “H.”
Addiction and organized crime are nothing new in Guayaquil. Ecuador’s second city is just a short run from the continent’s two biggest drug producer countries, Colombia and Peru, and its international port is one of Ecuador’s principal launch pads for transnational cocaine exports. As a result, both drugs and criminals have long flowed into the city.
But around 2011, local authorities started hearing the name of a new drug on the streets, a powder that was sniffed or dabbed known as H (hache). As the first new addicts of this drug began to filter in, they obtained a sample to send off for testing. The results were horrifying. H consisted of around 5 percent heroin mixed with a cocktail of other substances ranging from brick dust to rat poison.
While the minimal active content meant H packed less of a punch than normal heroin, it offered a heroin-like high on a level that seemed far more accessible and acceptable for casual drug users, but ultimately led to the same addiction. More than that, it made it cheap – today a bag of H sells for as little as 50 cents in Guayaquil compared to $2.50 for cocaine paste, the cheap and highly addictive cocaine derivative that more commonly occupies this rung in the drug market.
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“H is a drug that breaks the laws of economics – it is good but it is also cheap,” said Ricardo Loor, who at the time H emerged was head of prevention at the regional branch of the National Council for Control of Narcotic and Psychoactive Substances (Consejo Nacional de Control de Sustancias Estupefacientes y Psicotrópicas - Consep).
These selling points were no accident. H was introduced by Colombian traffickers who were turning to low-risk domestic markets for their heroin but found their own country’s markets were rapidly becoming saturated, according to government sources who spoke to InSight Crime.
At first, dealers handed out free samples to build a market base, establishing the product with adult consumers. Then they moved into the schools, stationing dealers outside their gates and recruiting students to sell the drug on the inside.
Seven years later, the success of the H marketing campaign can be seen in users as young as eight years old, taking hits from pen tips and stashing packets in holes cut into the elastic of their school uniform pants.
“All the schools are infested with H,” said Bladimir Chiriboga, who runs a local drug rehabilitation clinic. “In Guayaquil, consumption is disastrous, the youth are dying.”
The H Market
It makes sense that the H market was created by Colombians. For decades, Colombia has not only exported drugs to Guayaquil and Ecuador, it has also exported its criminals. Colombians in Guayaquil set up microtrafficking networks, loansharking operations and even a school to train contract killers, according to a local prosecutor who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But while Colombians sowed the seeds of the H boom, it is Ecuadorean criminals schooled in their methods who reap the rewards today. “We Ecuadoreans were good students,” said the prosecutor.
Names like “El Gorras,” “El Frances” and “Negro Jessy” now haunt the city, littering constant news reports detailing shootouts and assassinations.
The operations they run have two wings. On one side are the distribution networks, where sector chiefs dole out drug packets to street dealers. On the other, these drug bosses maintain networks of thugs and hitmen to provide security, settle scores, collect debts and wage turf wars.
Control of the city’s most deprived neighborhoods has been ceded to these networks. Drugs, prostitution, and guns fill the streets and shootouts are a near daily occurrence. Police only dare enter these areas as part of major operations.
Today, the violence linked to microtrafficking gangs by far eclipses violence connected to Guayaquil’s transnational drug trade.
“Internal drug sales are the biggest cause of insecurity. It causes a psychosis, violence takes over, there is aggressiveness in all their actions because it is drug sales that cause power struggles in these sectors,” said Segundo Benito Polidoro Romero Silva, a recently retired police criminal profiler who tracked the evolution of Guayaquil’s gangs.
Addicts and Illegal Clinics
Microtrafficking has not been the only criminal industry to get a boost by the H boom. There are also the underworld operators working the other end of the drug consumption market – clandestine rehab clinics.
Guayaquil has a long history of underground rehab clinics, catering to desperate families left stranded between an overloaded state sector and private clinics that can only meet government requirements by charging prices far out of the reach of the poor families most affected by drug addiction.
“The families that turn to these treatment centers for help are desperate, impotent, they don’t know what to do,” said Chiriboga. “These people use that and they convince them to leave [their family members] in these places.”
While some centers represent genuine attempts to help addicts with little resources, many are little more than prisons. Drug users are forced to go cold turkey while being locked away for months at a time. Conditions are atrocious, with addicts packed into tiny, filthy rooms and provided just enough food to survive.
Abuse in the centers is rampant, according to Loor, who in his role with Consep tried to initiate a formalization process for those centers willing to work with the authorities and close down those that were not.
“The behavior we found [in the centers] was psychopathic, there was abuse, and rapes,” he said.
Deaths at the centers are not uncommon. In January, 18 people died in one clinic after inmates set fire to mattresses in a desperate bid to escape.
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When Loor began working to tackle the centers, he also discovered darker forces were at play. He found himself confronted by heavily armed men, and his work eventually led to an attempt on his life.
“The vast majority of them have links to crime,” he said.
With H creating a new generation of addicts, the clinics are spreading at a rate far faster than the authorities can act against them.
“Every time they close down one clandestine center, two more open up,” said Chiriboga.
A Failure of Drug Policy and Treatment
The failure to tackle the H boom and the thriving trade in microtrafficking and illegal clinics represent a broader failure in drug policy from both the security and treatment sides of the issue, according to Loor.
“There is no understanding of the issue and when there is no understanding, they take the wrong path,” he said.
However, while tackling drug consumption and organized crime in a city where they have taken such a tight grip is daunting, the biggest problem is it is not a lack of capacity but the fact that there is a lot of money to be made in the suffering of addicts, and it is not only the criminals that are making it.
The police even serve as a recruiting pool for the gangs.
“The drug dealers say to them “listen brother, retire and I’ll pay you much more than the police,” said Romero, the criminal profiler. “They end up in the gangs, guarding the drugs.”
The rehab clinics too, are protected by corrupt officials, as Loor discovered when he tried to act against them and found himself facing down armed thugs alone.
“Corrupt health authorities and police are deeply involved with them,” he said.
For Loor, the H boom cannot be confronted while corrupt authorities hide behind the strawmen villains of microtraffickers and clinic owners.
“People say that these traffickers are so strong, so powerful,” he said. “But it is not that the traffickers are powerful it is that the authorities are weak and they bow down in front of money, pressure and power.”