While authorities in Ecuador tally record cocaine seizures, a change to the criminal code in the Andean country has possibly made it more difficult to prosecute large-scale traffickers.
Despite these massive seizures, Ernesto Pazmiño, the director of Ecuador’s Public Defender’s Office during the administration of ex-president Rafael Correa, says the country is failing to prosecute large-scale offenders while punishing low-level ones. “Enormous quantities of drugs are seized, but the major traffickers are never arrested,” Pazmiño told Expreso.
The problem, according to the Expreso report, may stem from a recent change in the country’s chief anti-drug law — a change that was part of wide-scale reforms to the Organic Integral Penal Code (Código Orgánico Integral Penal – COIP) approved by legislators in December 2019 but which did not go into effect until June 2020.
Under the revised criminal code, which sought to help Ecuador’s efforts to decriminalize small-scale drug use, prosecutors must pass the difficult bar of proving that a person apprehended with drugs intended to commercialize them.
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The language of Ecuador’s new anti-trafficking law marks a deviation from that employed across the region, and it could limit prosecutors’ ability to convict large-scale traffickers, undermining anti-drug efforts in a key hub for international transit.
Before, the country’s chief anti-drug trafficking law — article 220 of the COIP — was similar to Colombia’s. The Colombian law dictates that whoever “introduces, transports, carries, stores, conserves, manufactures, sells, offers, acquires, finances, or supplies” illicit substances is subject to criminal prosecution. This casts a wide net for prosecutors to employ.
Ecuador’s reformed law reads similarly but adds one key phrase: “with the intent to commercialize or place on the market.”
In practice, the law’s explicit reference to the commercialization of drugs functions as a caveat, permitting people who are caught transporting drugs to evade prosecution in the absence of evidence proving their intent to bring the drugs to market. Given the intermediary role these traffickers play in the drug supply-chain, evidence of such intent is scarce, as shipments are not explicitly commercialized until they reach their final destinations — often Europe, or beyond.
Street-level dealers, meanwhile, can be convicted and severely punished under the same law, despite their limited role in Ecuador’s drug trafficking economy. For low-level drug dealers and microtraffickers, the new law carries severe consequences — a sentences of up to 5 years, and even more if drugs end up in the hands of minors.
Yet the majority of drugs in Ecuador are for international delivery, not internal distribution: 110 tons and 18 tons, respectively, in 2020.