Rampant piracy along Ecuador’s coastal provinces is forcing hundreds of fishermen to leave their profession and the sea out of fear for their lives.
The most recent incident came on March 14 when two fishermen were shot dead and a third injured by pirates off the coast of Jama, in the northwestern province of Manabí, according to newspaper El Universo.
Many of the attacks have taken place in the northern province of Esmeraldas, a hotspot for cocaine trafficking near the Colombian border.
In the last five years, the fishermen of Esmeraldas have reported 850 attacks at sea targeting their boats' engines, newspaper La Hora reported. Yet authorities do not appear to have made arrests for this crime. For Aurelio Mejía Espinoza, Esmeraldas’ harbormaster, there is a complete absence of authority since most coastal patrol units are not functioning, with the ships not being repaired due to a lack of budget and spare parts.
A coast guard officer told La Hora that, based on the filed complaints, the pirate crews are usually made up of six people, all heavily armed and travelling in two boats. They often seize fishing vessels and use those to attack others. Some sprees, the officer said, saw 20 to 30 motors being stolen in a single day.
And fishermen are not the only targets. On February 28, a boat of tourists was hijacked by pirates near Puerto Bolívar in southern Ecuador, according to media reports. A vessel manned by well-armed criminals reportedly boarded the boat, took it into a mangrove swamp, robbed the passengers and stole the fuel.
InSight Crime Analysis
Pirates along Ecuador’s Pacific coast have enjoyed near-total impunity for decades, with the first cases dating back over 25 years. And the situation has only worsened as the country has become a cocaine superhighway for Mexico, the United States and Europe.
For the last decade, larger ships set to carry cocaine north have anchored miles offshore, trying to stay out of reach of Ecuadorean authorities and US Coast Guard allies. Local drug trafficking gangs in Ecuador have therefore relied on either ferrying the cocaine themselves using go-fast boats, stealing the fishing boats they need or even forcing fishermen to participate.
But fishermen caught carrying cocaine for drug trafficking groups can wind up in serious legal trouble. In 2019, an investigation by Filter Magazine found that some fishermen intercepted by the US Coast Guard had been transported to detention facilities in the United States.
But as the number of fishermen dwindles, those who remain are increasingly targeted. Ricardo Córdova, a fisherman in the town of Súa, told La Hora that he had lost $70,000 worth of equipment to pirates, including ten engines, three boats and four nets.
What’s more, budgets are being cut, making it unlikely that any further response will be taken. In 2021, Esmeraldas port had an operating budget of $185,000, less than the $245,000 promised by the government. In 2022, that was further slashed to $70,000, according to the harbourmaster Espinoza.
On occasion, fishermen have taken the law into their own hands, reportedly killing two members of a pirate crew in July 2021.