Ecuador’s geographic location and other environmental characteristics have long provided incentives for transnational organized crime to exploit the country as a drug transshipment point and a logistical safe haven. Once considered one of the most insecure countries in the region, Ecuador has succeeded in tackling certain manifestations of violence in recent years. But drug trafficking through the country is on the rise, paving the way for possible growing insecurity further down the road.
Ecuador borders the two largest coca producers in the world: Colombia to the north, and Peru to the east and the south.
The Andean nation also has a coastline of more than 2,200 kilometers, offering many natural and man-made departure points for smuggling goods and people.
Ecuador’s criminal landscape has long been shaped by foreign organizations, in particular Colombian criminal and guerrilla groups. The country has previously been described as the “United Nations” of organized crime, reflecting the reality of the country’s diverse, multinational underworld.
The Medellín and Cali cartels used Ecuador as a transshipment point for cocaine as far back as the 1970s. Ecuador has also been a longstanding smuggling hub for precursor chemicals needed to process the coca leaf into cocaine.
The country has also been a point of respite and organization, even as old organizations are recycled for new ones in neighboring countries. The emerging Colombian criminal bands (the so-called “bandas criminales” or BACRIM), for example, have recently taken over a sizable share of the Ecuadorean routes, including the maritime departure points along the Pacific coast to the United States. Authorities have pointed to significant seizures and killings in recent years as a sign that the BACRIM known as Urabeños have moved on Ecuador’s disparate criminal landscape.
Prior to their demobilization under the terms of a 2016 peace agreement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), managed drug and illegal mining operations along the Ecuador-Colombia border. The still active National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) maintains some control over that trade along the border. Certain FARC factions such as the 48th Front also used Ecuador as a logistical safe haven, falling back across the border to escape pressure from Colombian military operations. The ELN does the same.
How the ongoing peace process between the FARC and Colombia’s government will affect criminal border dynamics remains to be seen. But reports have already emerged of dissident guerrilla fighters joining crime groups in Ecuador or creating their own criminal structures across the border.
A string of seizures, arrests and testimonies over the years also show that Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel has succeeded in establishing contacts and routes in Ecuador. This expansion, mentioned in documents from the US criminal case against Sinaloa leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, has been particularly remarkable in the port city of Guayaquil.
The latter is one of the largest ports in South America and repeated multi-ton seizures indicate that it has developed into a central transshipment point for illicit products destined for US and European markets.
Ecuador’s role as a major transit point is illustrated by the growing volume of seizures in recent years. This likely fuels the local drug market, which also seems to have grown. Authorities seized a record-breaking 110 metric tons of drugs in 2016, 96 of which were solely transiting through the country.
Despite the booming transit of drugs through Ecuador and the growth of the local consumption market, Ecuador has succeeded in diminishing levels of violence from 22 homicides per 100,000 in 2011 — one of the highest in the region at the time — to 5.6 per 100,000 in 2016, the lowest murder rate in thirty years. If trends continue, the country appears poised to reach its goal of 5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017.
Ecuador is also a transit point for human smuggling. African migrants heading to the United States were reported to use the country as a maritime departure point to avoid land routes through Central America. Moreover, the country’s lax visa regulations — which enable nearly anyone to enter Ecuador with a 90-day tourist visa — have reportedly facilitated the development of human trafficking operations by Chinese organized crime groups in the country.
Additionally, Ecuador has a robust illegal mining industry and loose financial regulations to provide criminals with significant money laundering opportunities. Colombian organized crime has used gold mining in Ecuador to launder dirty cash, for instance, while a significant portion of illegally extracted gold from Peru is also thought to have been whitewashed via gold exports from Ecuador.
Ecuador’s criminal landscape has traditionally been composed of fragmented criminal groups operating as subcontractors for foreign organized crime, particularly Colombian criminal groups and, to a lesser extent, Mexican syndicates.
There are some exceptions. In April 2017, for example, Colombia arrested Ecuadorean citizen Washington Prado Alava, alias “Gerard” or “Gerald.” Although he was virtually unknown, Prado was accused of heading an organization that shipped 250 metric tons of cocaine from Colombia and Ecuador through Central America and to the United States. Another 150 metric tons were reportedly seized from the organization, which was allegedly set up in 2012 after the fall of much of the top leadership of Colombia’s Rastrojos BACRIM, for whom Prado had allegedly worked.
While the organization operated on both sides of the border, Prado reportedly remained in Ecuador where he protected himself by corrupting and killing officials. The story of Prado — who operated under the radar for years despite leading a large, powerful and violent criminal organization — serves as a warning of the potential for Ecuador to house their own, powerful homegrown trafficking groups, fueled by the flow of foreign drugs and weak institutional resistance to organized crime.
In 2016, Ecuador had a $1.2 billion budget for its 44,000-strong national police force, nearly three quarters of which was composed of “preventive” officers such as community or traffic police. Around 8,500 officers were dedicated to investigative work, and about 1,700 more to intelligence gathering.
Corruption, most likely spurred by increasing flows of drugs through the country, remains an issue within the force. Since 2013, 61 police officers were dismissed on suspicion of collusion with drug trafficking groups, including high-ranking officers. Police involvement in criminal operations has even extended as far as transporting drugs in police vehicles.
Since 2012, Ecuador has increased the military’s role in public security missions and anti-narcotic operations. Up to 11,000 soldiers have been deployed along the porous Colombia-Ecuador border, although the downscaling of this force was officially announced following the signature of the peace agreement between Colombia and the FARC. Coastal areas used as drug departure points have also witnessed a military presence.
Ecuador’s justice system has undergone deep structural changes over the past decade. After transitioning to an accusatorial justice system, the country overhauled the structure of its top judiciary positions and appointment mechanisms for high judges. The new system was meant to allow for greater independence from the executive branch. But its real impact has been questioned, and the country’s justice system remains susceptible to corruption. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016-2017 Global Competitiveness Report, Ecuador has one of the least independent judicial systems, ranking 134 in judicial independence out of the 138 countries assessed.
The Attorney General’s Office is responsible for criminal investigations and thus spearheads the fight against organized crime. The country also has a human rights ombudsman.
Ecuador’s penitentiary system suffers from overcrowding, but at an average of 132 percent, the country’s prison occupancy rate is still not among the worst in the region. There is, however, a problem with pretrial detention: just over 26,000 individuals were held in prisons in Ecuador as of June 2016, nearly half of whom were in pretrial detention.
After taking initial steps toward decriminalizing drug use and simultaneously targeting drug traffickers, a 2015 law severely toughened sentences for possession, even in low quantities. While this could allow for mass incarceration of low-level drug offenders, whether consumers or low-ranking criminals, further down the road, the number of prisoners has not increased disproportionately since the law was passed.