Colombia's principal criminal organization, the Gaitanistas, have marked their arrival in Ecuador with a series of killings, kidnappings and extortion of rivals as they look to establish a firm foothold in a country that is now a hub of global organized crime.
In recent months, Ecuadorean authorities have linked several large cocaine seizures to the Gaitanistas, the first time the group has been publically identified as operating in Ecuador.
However, intelligence reports obtained by El Comercio link the narco-paramilitary group to a series of drug related murders carried out last year in the Province of Los Rios. The reports also suggest the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), have been targeting networks linked to rival groups in Ecuador with kidnappings and extortion, and by seizing their cash, vehicles and properties, as they try to establish dominion and edge out rivals.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños Profile
According to Colombian Police Chief Jose Roberto Leon, Ecuador was also one of the countries that renowned drug trafficker and leading member of the AGC Henry de Jesus Lopez, alias "Mi Sangre," passed through after fleeing Colombia. Mi Sangre was captured in Argentina in October 2012.
InSight Crime Analysis
In recent years, Ecuador has lived up to its billing as the "United Nations of Organized Crime." As highlighted by El Comercio, the country has not only attracted the main players in the regional drug trade -- Colombian suppliers and Mexican buyers -- but also organized crime rings from around the world, including Nigeria, Russia, and China.
There are numerous reasons for the growth in Ecuador's popularity with drug trafficking organizations, but the main reason has been the ease with which Colombian groups involved in drug production and transit, principally the FARC guerrillas and the Rastrojos, have been able to operate freely on both sides of the border.
Lax and under resourced security, especially in ports and along the coasts, then make it an ideal dispatch point for the Colombians' cocaine, bringing in the Mexican cartels -- particularly the Sinaloa Cartel, which is known to have established a firm presence in the country -- and wholesale buyers from the world's other principal markets and trafficking hubs.
However, these transnational groups have so far maintained a low profile, and their spread has not been accompanied by a dramatic spike in violence. These latest reports raise the possibility that this could change if the AGC -- the most aggressive and militaristic of Colombia's narco-paramilitary groups -- try to seize control of this critical criminal hub by force.