Ecuador’s capture of nine alleged Sinaloa Cartel operatives, and the brutal murder of a policeman investigating the Mexican criminal group, could be signs of trouble to come in this geographically strategic country, which is an increasingly important transit point for cocaine shipments.

A series of raids, in which 4.1 tons of cocaine were seized, were carried out after a tip-off from the Mexican authorities. Those arrested in Ecuador included three Mexicans and two Colombians, while another nine suspected members of the same group were arrested back in Mexico in simultaneous operations. That country's police announced that the detainees were part of a drug and money laundering ring led by Victor Manuel Felix Felix, alias “El Señor,” a close associate of Sinaloa head Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera.

On the same weekend two Ecuadorean anti-narcotics policemen in Quito were ambushed, tied up, and shot in the head, in an attack reportedly carried out by a group transporting cocaine for Sinaloa. One died, while the other was seriously wounded.

Following this brutal attack, reminiscent of killings of security forces in Ecuador’s drug trafficking neighbors, President Rafael Correa declared that, “We’re not going to allow [Ecuador] to turn into the tragedy we have seen in other countries … Justice is going to win against organized crime.”

Despite increasing penetration by organized criminal groups like the Sinaloa Cartel, another representative of which was arrested there in January, Ecuador is still is far from the state of “other countries” in the region, such as Colombia or Mexico, which have both been racked by drug violence. Cocaine production in relatively peaceful Ecuador remains negligible, according to the 2010 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report, and it lacks the powerful home-grown drug trafficking organizations of many other countries in the region. But Ecuador is increasingly becoming a transit country for drugs, as Colombian security advances over the last decade have made it harder for Colombian groups to ship cocaine by land or air, forcing traffickers to turn to the still poorly-policed land routes into Venezuela and Ecuador.

From there drugs are usually trafficked up the Pacific Coast into Mexico, for distribution by cartels like the Sinaloa. Spurred by the break up of Colombia’s old cartels in the last two decades, Mexican drug-trafficking organizations have stretched their reach into South America. Mexican organizations now control the narcotics trade from further down the supply chain, with operatives in countries like Ecuador, and handle the shipping of drugs themselves, resulting in much higher profit margins.

A Peruvian anti-organized crime prosecutor warned last year that the Sinaloa Cartel had two armed groups operating on the border with Ecuador, managed from the Ecuadorean cities of Guayaquil and Cariamanga by a Colombian national. As well as coming into Ecuador from Colombia in the north, drugs also come up through Peru. Guayaquil, Ecuador's main port, is a major transit destination for drugs to be shipped out to Mexico; some of the recent raids and the January arrest both took place in the city.

The Colombian guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) are also involved in drug trafficking through Ecuador. Recently killed FARC guerrilla Olidem Romel Solarte, alias “Oliver Solarte,” was thought to be in charge of the organization’s trafficking of drugs into Ecuador, as well as building and handling contacts with the Mexican cartels.

The presence of criminal groups has not left Ecuador untouched - a UN report in 2010 said that the country’s homicide rate had doubled since 1990 to reach 20 per 100,000 inhabitants. This is significantly more than Mexico, at 14. The various criminal organizations are attracted by Ecuador’s strategic location, widespread corruption, weak law enforcement institutions, and history of political turbulence.