According to a new investigation by the United Nations, killings committed by contracted assassins are on the rise in Ecuador. The phenomenon is just the latest evidence that the Andean country is emerging as a new hotspot for transnational organized crime.
According to Philip Alston, a senior United Nations (UN) official, Ecuador is facing a rising threat from organized crime. In a report that Alston presented in Geneva this week, he argued that Ecuador’s national homicide rate has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, swelling from 10.3 murders per every 100,000 inhabitants in 1990 to 18.7 in 2009.
In his report, Alston describes a startling rise in contract killing in the country, which he claims began as a service provided by foreign criminal elements, but is increasingly a homegrown phenomenon. According to him, these hitman-style executions accounted for between 11 percent and 14 percent of the country’s homicides in 2010.
The rise of these types of killings can be explained by several factors, says Alston, but chief among them are the increased activity of organized criminal groups in Ecuador, accompanied by a rise in drug trafficking, high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, all fueled by economic uncertainty.
Alston is not the only official to express concern over Ecuador’s deteriorating security situation. Last month Jay Bergman, the director of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) activities in the Andes, told Reuters that Ecuador is becoming a melting pot for international organized criminal groups, most of which specialize in drug trafficking. "We have cases of Albanian, Ukrainian, Italian, Chinese organized crime all in Ecuador, all getting their product for distribution to their respective countries," said Bergman.
But Ecuador didn’t become a major drug trafficking hub overnight. The rise of drug-related crime in the country has been gradual, and corresponded with increased crackdowns in neighboring Colombia. While authorities say they have managed to reduce the amount of coca produced in Colombia by more than 55 percent over the past decade, these efforts have also caused drug traffickers to expand their operations in Ecuador. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), under pressure at home, are now using Ecuador as a key transit point for the drug trade, as well as a source of weapons and supplies.
As the U.S. State Department’s 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report noted, traffickers have exploited Ecuador's vast, isolated border with Colombia, and use a series of clandestine maritime and river routes to export their illicit product. According to the report, nearly 220 metric tons of cocaine now passes through Ecuador each year, with 60 percent destined for the U.S. and most of the rest for Europe.
In the summer of 2010, Ecuadorean officials made headlines when they announced that they had seized the first ever fully submersible narco-submarine. Because the craft was capable of carrying a crew of six and 10 tons of cocaine and could dive up to 65 feet, U.S. anti-drug officials referred to the find as a “game changer" for border security efforts.
Weak border control isn't the only factor that has encouraged criminal groups to move to Ecuador. After the country waived visa requirements for almost every country in the world in 2008, there is evidence that Colombian, Russian and Chinese organizations set up shop, running drug or human trafficking networks. Ecuador's use of the dollar as official currency has also encouraged a rise in money laundering.
The rise of contract killings in Ecuador is a symptom of a more serious disease: the growing influence of transnational organized gangs. The country's strategic importance as a route for cocaine exports, as well as the government's lax visa requirements and weak anti-money laundering laws, has helped turn Ecuador into an important center of operations for groups like the FARC. Alongside reports that powerful Mexican organization the Sinaloa Cartel is expanding its influence in Ecuador, the UN report is another alarm bell for the country.