Ecuador’s geographic location and other environmental characteristics have long provided incentives for transnational organized crime groups to exploit the country as a drug transshipment point and a logistical safe haven. Ecuador’s diverse transnational criminal landscape, dominated mainly by Colombian criminal and guerrilla groups as well as Mexican cartels, has led some to describe it as the “United Nations” of organized crime.
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, one of South America’s smallest countries, borders the two largest cocaine producers in the world: Colombia to the north and Peru to the east and south.
Ecuador’s extensive western coastline along the Pacific Ocean is home to the port of Guayaquil, an important launching point for international shipments of illicit goods. A series of rivers follow the country’s southern border into Peru, offering many routes for smuggling goods and people.
Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, which has made it susceptible to wildlife trafficking, including from the Galapagos Islands off the country’s coast. Once vast forests have been decimated in recent years in part by illegal logging.
Ecuador became an independent country in 1830. Its first century of existence was marked by turmoil fueled by internal conflict among elite factions.
In the post-World War II period, Ecuador alternated between periods of constitutional governance and military rule, until 1979, when the military ceded power to an elected president for the last time.
Transnational organized crime began to establish a foothold in the country during the latter half of the 20th century. From the 1970s to the 1990s, Colombia’s Medellín and Cali cartels used Ecuador as a transshipment point for trafficking drugs and as a smuggling hub for precursor chemicals needed to process the coca leaf into cocaine.
The now largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), once major players in the international cocaine trade, also have had a longstanding presence in Ecuador.
The country has also been a point of respite and organization. Colombian crime groups known as “bandas criminales,” or BACRIM, for example, have taken over a sizable share of Ecuadorean trafficking routes, including the maritime departure points along the Pacific coast. Authorities have pointed to significant seizures and killings in recent years as a sign that the BACRIM group known as Urabeños has moved into Ecuador.
Prior to its 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. 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.
Even before the signing of the peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government, reports were already emerging 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 5.8 per 100,000 in 2017, the second lowest rate in the region.
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 domestic crime groups have traditionally been fragmented operating as subcontractors for foreign criminal organizations, particularly Colombian 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, 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.
Ecuador has a national police force that is overseen by the Interior Ministry, which is the primary institution dedicated to fighting organized crime in the country. Ecuador’s national police is one of the most professional and trusted law enforcement institutions in Latin America, but corruption scandals have grown in recent years.
Between 2013 and 2017, nearly 1,000 police officers were dismissed, including high-ranking officers. Just under half of the dismissals were tied to allegedly criminal behavior. Police involvement in criminal activities has ranged from graft to extortion to facilitating drug trafficking and even transporting drugs in police vehicles.
In 2012, the administration of then-President Rafael Correa began expanding the military’s role in public security and anti-drug trafficking operations, in part because of police corruption and his government’s strained relationship with the force. Mass deployments of soldiers to the porous Colombia-Ecuador border were scaled down following the 2016 signing of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC. However, recent violence allegedly committed by a dissident faction of the demobilized FARC, including the bombing of a police station and the kidnapping and murder of journalists, have led Ecuador and Colombia to reinforce their shared border with troops. Coastal areas used as drug departure points have also witnessed a military presence.
Ecuador’s highest judicial body is the National Court of Justice, which includes a specialized chamber for criminal cases. Below this are the Constitutional Court, specialized tribunals, provincial courts and community-level peace courts responsible for conciliating local conflicts. The Attorney General’s Office is responsible for criminal investigations, including those related to organized crime.
Ecuador’s justice system underwent deep structural changes following the 2008 enactment of a new constitution, which included transitioning to an accusatorial justice system as well as overhauling the structure of its top judicial bodies and the appointment mechanisms for judges. The new system was intended to allow for greater independence from the executive branch, but there is disagreement about whether it has actually achieved that goal.
The World Justice Project’s 2017-2018 Rule of Law index ranked Ecuador as one of the countries with the most corruption and the weakest criminal justice systems in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Ecuador’s penitentiary system suffers from chronic overcrowding, but the situation is less grave than many other countries in the region. As of 2018, Ecuador’s prison system was operating at nearly 138 percent of its total capacity, and almost 40 percent of all prisoners were being held in pretrial detention. Overcrowding and a lack of resources for the country’s penitentiaries have at times contributed to prison breaks.
After taking initial steps toward decriminalizing drug use while simultaneously targeting drug traffickers, a 2015 law severely toughened sentences for possession, even in low quantities. While this could lead to mass incarceration of low-level drug offenders further down the road, the number of prisoners has not increased disproportionately since the law was passed.