HomeNewsDataInSights: The Cocaine Problem Ecuador's Presidential Candidates Cannot Wish Away
DataInSights: The Cocaine Problem Ecuador's Presidential Candidates Cannot Wish Away

DataInSights: The Cocaine Problem Ecuador's Presidential Candidates Cannot Wish Away


Two candidates remain in Ecuador’s presidential race, and, regardless of their security strategies, neither can control the rising production of cocaine, which appears to be fueling the country’s spiraling violence.

The final candidates, Luisa González of the Citizen Revolution Movement (Movimiento Revolución Ciudadana), and Daniel Noboa of National Democratic Action (Acción Democrática Nacional - ADN), will compete in a runoff scheduled for October 15. 

Both have offered sketches of their proposals to fight the spiraling violence in the country. But there is one macroeconomic trend they are helpless against: cocaine.

SEE ALSO: In Ecuador’s Elections, Social Programs Won

Cocaine is the main driver of Ecuador’s criminal economy, and the rise in trafficking seems to have raised the stakes between criminal groups, as it coincided with an incredible increase in violence in the last few years.  

Burgeoning Cocaine Production

Ecuador is a transit country, and most of the cocaine moving through it comes from Colombia. How much is the subject of widespread speculation, but in 2019, Ecuadorian authorities told InSight Crime that over one-third of the cocaine produced in Colombia traverses Ecuador.

Others, including US authorities, told us that the amount was significantly higher. But, if we use one-third as a baseline, we can provide a rough understanding of how much cocaine is going through Ecuador, how much this amount has risen in recent years, and how this increase coincided with rising homicides. 

In 2021, the last year for which the United Nations and Colombia’s government released data, Colombia’s potential production of cocaine was 1,400 tons. If one-third of that traversed Ecuador, then the country received 467 tons of cocaine. This represents a 62% increase from 2016, when Colombia’s potential cocaine production was 866 tons, and an estimated 289 tons went through Ecuador.

Production areas along the border with Ecuador also saw increases in the production of coca, the raw material used to manufacture cocaine. Taken together, Putumayo and Nariño, the two Colombian states adjacent to Ecuador with the largest production, saw estimated coca production expand from 68,000 hectares to 85,000 hectares between 2016 and 2021.

During the same period there was also a marked increase in cocaine seizures in Ecuador, as well as seizures of shipments out of the country. In 2016, the Ecuadorian authorities seized 98 tons, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), while in 2022, they seized 179 tons, an increase of 45%. Seizures in other markets confirm these trends. In Europe, specifically, seizures of cocaine from Ecuador have gone from 9% of the total, or around 5 tons, to 33%, or around 57 tons, according to UNODC. 

Increased Stakes in the Criminal Market

Increased cocaine flows through Ecuador seem to have raised the stakes considerably for criminal groups. Different traffickers are known to calculate their costs in different ways. In other transit countries, we have seen groups that charge based on the change in price between when they receive the drug and when it leaves their hands. In Honduras, for example, that was about $2,000 per kilogram.

For a while, at least, Ecuadorian groups seemed to charge considerably less. According to testimony in the United States’ case against Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, for example, Ecuadorian traffickers once collected $100 per kilogram to move cocaine through the country and $3,000 per kilogram to bring it to the coast of Mexico.

SEE ALSO: 4 Reasons Why Ecuador Is in a Security Crisis 

Today, there are more sophisticated criminal groups in Ecuador who likely charge significantly more. And from our recent field trips to Ecuador, we can say the market is broken into three major groups. The first group moves cocaine on their fleet of fishing and go-fast boats to the coasts of Guatemala and Mexico where it passes the merchandise to the large drug trafficking groups, for which it charges $3,000 per kilogram. The second group moves cocaine from the Colombian border to seaports where it hides the drug in containers that are shipped to consumer nations, charging close to $2,000 per kilogram. The third group does logistics for drug trafficking groups who fly their aircraft into Ecuador on their way to traffic the drug elsewhere. We estimate this third group charges close to $200 per kilogram.  

Ecuadorian authorities told InSight Crime the first group represents 30% of the market. We estimate the second group represents 50% and the third group 20%. Based on our previous estimates that one-third, or about 467 tons, of Colombian cocaine goes through Ecuador, this would be a $953 million market for the year 2021. This is up from an estimated $590 million market in 2016, when cocaine production figures from Colombia showed that 289 tons could have gone through Ecuador. To put this into perspective, $953 million would make cocaine Ecuador’s sixth largest export, above cut flowers, cocoa beans, copper, and gold, according to data compiled by the non-governmental Observatory of Economic Complexity.

Of course, a $953 million market for local criminal groups can be a multibillion-dollar market for foreign criminal organizations who can gain control of the cocaine at an earlier point in the distribution chain, incentivizing their increased involvement and perhaps adding to the competition in Ecuador.

A Rise in Violence

The increase in cocaine production and proceeds coincided with a startling rise in homicides in Ecuador, from 6 per 100,000 in 2016, to 25 per 100,000 in 2022. That rise in violence aligns geographically with the country’s main cocaine corridors. One of the routes runs at least partially through the Pacific coastal state of Esmeraldas, which was the country’s most violent province last year. According to Ecuadorian government data, in 2016, Esmeraldas had 74 homicides; in 2022, it registered 522, giving it a homicide rate of 81 per 100,000.

Trafficking groups also use the port of Guayaquil, in Guayas province -- the country’s busiest port and the second-most violent province in Ecuador -- as a hub and embarkation point. There, homicides rose from 293 in 2016 to 2,033 in 2022, giving it a homicide rate of 46 per 100,000. Other provinces that saw rises in violence, including Manabí and Los Ríos, also coincide with these routes.  

These calculations are obviously crude and do not take into consideration numerous other factors, including local drug markets. However, the correlation between cocaine and homicides seems clear, at least from this preliminary glance. 

This leaves presidential hopefuls González and Noboa in a difficult spot. To their credit, they have both offered nuanced and less militaristic options than some of their political counterparts in Ecuador and beyond. But if these macroeconomic trends continue, they may be facing extreme violence for some time to come. 

share icon icon icon

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


Related Content

BARRIO 18 / 20 APR 2017

Olfato. It is a term used quite often in law enforcement and judicial circles in Central America (and other parts…

BARRIO 18 / 18 DEC 2020

A recent police raid in the eastern part of El Salvador, in which a mayor and several municipal and judicial…

COCAINE / 17 JAN 2023

The trial of Mexico’s former top public security official will reveal shortcomings in the fight against organized crime.