The persistent robbery, extortion, assault, and even murder of shrimp farm workers by armed gangs in Ecuador has led the shrimp sector to once more demand gun reforms, in a new attempt to challenge the criminal groups feeding off this lucrative industry.
In December, representatives of Ecuador’s National Chamber of Aquaculture (Cámara Nacional de Acuacultura —CNA) stated in a press conference that in the last three years organized crime groups have murdered seven shrimp farmers, injured another 60, and stolen shrimp and equipment worth over $2.5 million, according to a CNA press release.
Since authorities have proven unable to protect shrimp sector workers, CNA representatives called on Ecuador’s government and National Assembly to relax the Law on Arms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Accessories and lower the ICE Special Consumption Tax, which charges a 300 percent tax on firearm and ammunition purchases, to facilitate shrimp workers acquiring guns to defend themselves.
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For years, armed criminals on boats have been hijacking shrimp vessels at sea and stealing their catch, equipment, and engines, while vehicles carrying shrimp on land have been stopped and robbed at gunpoint, according to a January article by El Universo. The critical areas have been the Gulf of Guayaquil and the Jambelí Archipelago, yet small shrimp farms have also been raided by armed thieves, while gangs often extort shrimp farm workers for monthly payments.
In effect, the entire shrimp sector is under attack, which forces the industry to invest $60 million annually to protect its businesses. Yet while surveillance cameras and private security companies have some success, small- and medium- sized businesses often cannot afford them. Adding insult to injury, stolen merchandise is often sold back to the victims at a premium.
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Across Latin America, victims of insecurity and criminal violence have understandably often invoked self-protection when demanding looser gun laws. Yet from Brazil to Panama and Honduras to Peru, evidence suggests weaker gun laws often lead to increased violence, with criminals amassing legal arsenals.
A 2015 report by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) already found that firearms trafficked into Ecuador arm private security companies and shrimp farms as often as they do domestic criminals and while the ongoing robberies must be better addressed, reversing the trend of falling firearm seizures in Ecuador is unlikely to be an effective solution.
Greater government action should theoretically be the way forward, yet despite Ecuador’s shrimp industry being the world’s second-largest and shrimp being the nation’s second-largest export, law enforcement has been lacking. Since 2016, Ecuador’s Navy and Coast Guard have implemented the “Safe Routes” (“Rutas Seguras”) plan, maintaining a number of patrolled maritime corridors through which fishermen can move safely.
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According to the CNA’s website, there are currently 12 Safe Routes listed for Jambelí Archipelago and 24 listed for the Gulf of Guayaquil. Interested parties may secure a Coast Guard escort by contacting the listed number and providing details as to when and where they require the escort. Yet while authorities claim the routes have been highly effective, with robberies dramatically lowered, fishermen in nearby rivers have complained about not receiving protection.
This underlines the key problem: The Navy is unable to guarantee security outside of limited passageways. Nor has the plan ended violence and robbery against the shrimp sector. Additionally, in 2019, when Ecuador’s shrimp exports reached a record $3.65 billion, according to CNA statistics, CNA representatives were granted a meeting to discuss the issue with Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrín.
Any proposed measures were void in May 2020, however, when security escorts were stopped and Navy ships temporarily grounded after it was discovered Ecuador’s Armed Forces had not renewed their insurance coverage. Delayed payment of the final installment of $1.1 million was blamed on the Ministry of Finance, as well as to an overall cut in the Armed Forces budget.
Occurring right as a Chinese fishing fleet threatened Ecuadorian maritime sovereignty near the Galápagos Islands, the fiasco stopped patrols for several weeks before payment was made and the “Safe Routes” plan resumed. Nonetheless, the shrimp sector’s literal call to arms indicates the problem remains unsolved.