In an effort to move large quantities of drugs to Europe, traffickers are increasing the flow of cocaine through Ecuador’s port city of Guayaquil -- long a key transshipment point for drugs coming from neighboring countries.
The latest bust occurred at the Guayaquil port on September 5, when police dogs uncovered some 300 kilograms of cocaine concealed in tuna cargo aboard a ship scheduled to stop at ports in Spain and Belgium, El Telégrafo reported. An anti-drug agent said no arrests were made, but that the smuggled cocaine was marked with “X19,” a possible indication of the trafficking group.
Authorities in Ecuador have already seized a total of 55 tons of cocaine in 2019, according to La Hora.
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Guayaquil, the country’s largest city and home to its largest port, is a major exit point for cocaine, although maritime seizures of drug shipments have increased around the country. In September 2018, Plan V reported that authorities had seized nearly 40 tons of cocaine there during the past two years.
Hiding drugs within shipping cargo has become so common that the technique has been dubbed “gancho ciego,” or “blind hook,” where specific containers are targeted before they are loaded on a ship. The smugglers break the containers’ seal, conceal the drugs inside and then replace the seal with a new one. The result is that the drugs are often stashed among the legal cargo.
For example, in 2018, 270 kilograms of cocaine worth $10.7 million was discovered om canned fish destined for Belgium, 353 kilograms in bananas headed to Russia, and 700 kilograms in shellfish en route to Spain, Plan V reported.
But while "gancho ciego" has proved popular across Ecuador, it is far from the only tactic in use. Drugs are also sent abroad through front export companies, hidden within the structures of shipping containers or attached to the hulls of boats, among others.
InSight Crime Analysis
While Colombia is often the focus of the drug trade, the importance of its neighbor Ecuador as a transshipment point -- especially for cocaine headed to Europe -- cannot be underestimated.
During the recent Organization of American States international commission on drugs, Citizen Security Subsecretary Diego Tipán said that 500 tons of illicit substances were seized in Ecuador between 2014 and 2019. Among non-producer countries, Ecuador seizes the most drugs in the world, he said.
Wedged between Colombia and Peru -- two major cocaine producers – Ecuador and its maritime industry are an attractive target for smugglers.
Nearly a third of Colombian cocaine moves through Ecuador, according to anti-drug officials who spoke with InSight Crime. Cocaine is transported by road from Colombia to Guayaquil, where it is stored in private residences or warehouses until it can be smuggled aboard shipping cargo.
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To improve controls at the Guayaquil port, Ecuador and the United States signed a 2018 agreement that enables US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers to be posted there, according to the State Department’s 2019 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.
In addition to the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador also sees drugs leave through the port of Puerto Bolivar, where a number of seizures have been made in 2018 and 2019 as well.
Due to limited monitoring capacity, only 3 percent of the shipments leaving its ports are searched, Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told Business Insider.
According to figures obtained from anti-narcotics officials, of the drugs seized in Ecuador in 2018, 22 percent were in shipments destined for Europe, where demand for cocaine continues to grow.