The growing role of Guayaquil, Ecuador as a hub for international cocaine trafficking reflects the changing dynamics of the Colombia-Ecuador drug trade, and shows how security policies intended to combat the drug trade have failed.
Ecuadorean news outlet El Comercio published a report detailing the growing role of the port city of Guayaquil in the cocaine trade. Authorities attribute this development to a combination of the recent militarization of the Ecuadorean city of Esmeraldas on the border with Colombia, as well as to historic highs in Colombia’s cocaine production.
Colombian crime groups are recruiting Ecuadorean gangs to transport small batches of drugs to Guayaquil. But their routes now bypass Esmeraldas, which used to play a central role in international cocaine trafficking.
The head of Ecuador’s national anti-narcotic agency, Carlos Alulema, told El Comercio that the military presence in Esmeraldas is behind the decrease in trafficking routes going through the city.
Now, the drugs are first gathered in other provinces in the interior of Ecuador, such as Napo, Orellana, Santo Domingo and Chimborazo. From there, they are transported to Guayaquil in anything from common pick-up trucks and low-end vehicles to cranes and public buses. The vehicles are modified to hide the drugs, and travel on roads with little security force presence.
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“The gangs know the routes and use roads that are rarely monitored. Once they’ve accumulated enough cocaine in the inland provinces, they send it little by little to warehouses and workshops in Guayaquil. When the merchandise is ready there, they ship it abroad,” a security agent told El Comercio.
From Guayaquil, the drugs are sent in ships and containers to Europe, camouflaged among other products. Cocaine is also sent by land to other coastal Ecuadorean provinces such as Manabí, where shipments heading to Central America and the United States leave in small boats from remote beaches.
InSight Crime Analysis
Ecuador has seen an increase in cocaine seizures in recent years, including maritime seizures. So far this year, the country has conducted almost 2,000 cocaine seizures, and 373 of them have occurred in Guayaquil. As of June, authorities reported seizing 36 tons of the drug.
In January, the Ecuadorean government unveiled an aggressive security plan in Esmeraldas after a wave of violent crime hit its border areas. The violence left four military officers dead. Armed groups have also been responsible for civilian kidnappings and killings, including the case of three El Comercio employees murdered in June and the more recent discovery of the bodies of an Ecuadorean couple who had been kidnapped in April.
As part of a joint strategy between the governments of Colombia and Ecuador, 2,000 soldiers are currently stationed in the Colombian border department of Nariño, where more than 60 tons of cocaine has been seized this year.
Much of the drug trafficking and violence along the border has been attributed to the Olíver Sinisterra Front (Frente Olíver Sinisterra), an ex-FARC dissident group allegedly led by Walter Artízala, alias “Guacho.”
Military intelligence investigations accessed by El Comercio have also revealed that the Olíver Sinisterra Front currently has routes and support networks for shipping drugs out of both Colombia and Ecuador.
Although Ecuador is not a major cocaine producer, due to its geographic location, it has seen the impact of the dramatic expansion of coca farming and cocaine production in Colombia over the past several years.
According to the most recent World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), nearly 70 percent of the 213,000 hectares of coca cultivated globally in 2016 were planted in Colombia.
Based on this and the most recent White House figures on coca farming, InSight Crime estimates that Colombia may have produced close to 1,500 metric tons of cocaine in 2017.
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These new dynamics in the flow of cocaine also illustrate how easily drug trafficking organizations adapt to security policies focused on arresting or killing crime bosses and seizing large amounts of cocaine.
Considering the ability of drug traffickers to adjust their practices to maintain their business, a report published this year by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) recommends taking a step back from traditional counter-narcotic policies focused on seizures and targeting criminal leaders.
*This analysis was prepared with the assistance of InSight Crime’s Colombia Investigative Team.