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Is the Sinaloa Cartel Feeding Ecuador's Domestic Drug Trade?

A cocaine shipment seized in Ecuador A cocaine shipment seized in Ecuador

Reports from Ecuador highlight the size of its domestic drug market, although the country's biggest challenge may lie in the amount of narcotics moving through for international markets -- largely controlled by foreign groups like Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel.

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As El Comercio reports, Ecuadorean police have identified more than 100 transit routes used to move drug shipments from Colombia and Peru into the country, as well as 10 cities used as the primary distribution points for the domestic drug trade, including the key port of Guayaquil, and capital Quito.

In southern Ecuador, the towns of Machala, Piñas, Zaruma, and El Guabo are used as the main entry points for cocaine shipments from Peru. Meanwhile, Quito's local drug market is fed by drug shipments that travel through the northern provinces of Sucumbios and Esmeraldas, on the Colombian border. Other cities also have extensive drug distribution, or "microtrafficking," networks. Police say that the central city of Ambato has eight organizations dedicated to dealing drugs at a local level. The coastal city of Manta has four zones identified as significant hubs for microtrafficking.

Another El Comercio report highlights the profits to be made from Ecuador's microtrafficking trade. One northern neighborhood in Quito is thought to bring in over $400,000 a month in drug sales, while another in the center of the city brings in over $200,000. Police say they have identified new ways in which local gangs are moving and selling product -- including one group that sells drugs hidden in pastries. 

InSight Crime Analysis 

El Comercio's reporting sheds some light on the sheer breadth of both the international and domestic drug trade in Ecuador. According to the government, 5 tons of narcotics have been seized in the first three months of 2013, 2 tons of which was intended for internal drug consumption in Ecuador.

The former head of Ecuador's anti-money laundering unit has said that part of the reason for this growth in the internal drug market is because international criminal cartels increasingly pay their local partners in product, rather than in cash. Both Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel and Colombia's Rastrojos are known to have a presence in Ecuador, and the Sinaloa Cartel in particular is known for using drug shipments as payment. This form of reimbursement has helped drive up microtrafficking (and violence) in cities across the region, including Ciudad Juarez on the US-Mexico border.

Curiously, however, according to official figures there does not seem to be an increase in Ecuador's internal drug consumption. "There has not been a vertiginous change," Lautaro Ojeda, an expert in Ecuadorean security and a former professor at the Central University of Ecuador, told InSight Crime. "I would say there has been a slight upward trend, but the last survey by the National Council for Substance Control [CONSEP] does not show a significant increase."

"Where there really is a worrying change is in the apparent amount of cocaine being transited through the country," Ojeda added.

Ecuadorean groups handle the business of microtrafficking, but are also involved in the transnational drug business, security analyst Ricardo Camacho told InSight Crime. "So to speak, the Mexicans and the Colombians are the owners of the business, but the Ecuadoreans are the labor force," he said. "The Ecuadoreans are the ones driving the trucks, loading the containers, guarding the drug shipments."

The role that Ecuadoreans play in the international drug trade was further made evident when, last week, police announced the arrest of Cesar Vernaza Quiñonez, alias "El Empresario," who is accused of heading a local criminal organization and serving as a key link with the Sinaloa Cartel. 

Indeed, it appears that while Ecuador's internal drug trade has grown slightly, and is bringing in sizable profits at a local level, the country primarily remains a launch pad for the international export of cocaine, rather than a consumer country. However, this internal drug market could expand much faster if traffickers continue to use the country as a key transshipment point. And, as the transnational drug trade is primarily controlled by foreign groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel, the most effective approach to controlling Ecuador's microtrafficking business in the long term may be via an aggressive law enforcement campaign against these foreign groups, rather than by targeting local organizations.

Given the dynamics of organized crime, these transnational organizations may end up reining each other in. According to security analyst Eduardo Jarrin, Mexican criminal organizations present in Colombia have already clashed with Colombian groups, a phenomenon which InSight Crime has documented. These criminal groups tip off authorities about their rivals' drug shipments, allowing law enforcement to seize the illicit product, Jarrin says. The tensions between the Colombians and Mexicans are only likely to increase, he adds. "The Mexicans want to have total domination over Ecuador's drug trade," he said.

If the conflict between these transnational criminal organizations intensifiwa, Ecuador's local criminal groups will likely be the ones caught in the middle. 

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