Ecuador Arms Trafficking Ring More Complex Than Previously Thought

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Organized crime structures are known to be moving entire arsenals from Peru into Ecuador and on to armed groups within Colombia. However, the full details about the origins of these weapons and the specific criminal organizations receiving them remain unknown.

On February 13, Ecuadorean authorities carried out an operation in the cities of Quito and Riobamba, dismantling an international arms trafficking network that transported, stored and distributed weapons and ammunition from Peru into Ecuador, as well as along Ecuador’s border with Colombia.

In an operation dubbed “Armageddon 9,” authorities intercepted two vehicles, raided several warehouses, arrested seven people, seized 500,000 rounds of ammunition and other explosives seemingly bound for Colombia’s black market.

While reports of weapons sales from the Ecuadorean army to Colombian criminal groups continue, this operation revealed that high-tech weapons from the United States and Mexico are entering Ecuador through Peru, and then being smuggled into Colombia at several points along the border.

SEE ALSO: Ecuador News and Profile

A report by Ecuadorean authorities explained that the weapons coming from Peru first arrived in El Oro province. From there, they seem to be frequently moved to the city of Guayaquil before being distributed and sold to criminal organizations and other armed groups operating along the Colombian border, notably in Ecuador’s border provinces of Esmeraldas and Sucumbíos.

In the last nine years, Ecuador’s police has seized around 40,000 smuggled weapons, including 12,000 high-caliber rifles, which were all bound for criminal organizations.

Authorities have been on particularly high alert since October 2018, when “Operation Chameleon” broke up an arms trafficking ring which smuggled weapons from the Ecuadorean army to an ex-FARC mafia group known as the Oliver Sinisterra Front. This group of dissidents from the now largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) was under the orders of Walter Patricio Arizala, alias “Guacho,” who was one of the most wanted criminals in both Colombia and Ecuador up until his death in December 2018.

Despite these successes, Colombian guerrillas continue to receive “large quantities of munitions and high-caliber weaponry” from transnational organized crime groups through Ecuador, according to Ecuadorean prosecutor Wilson Álvarez Valencia.

Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo added that doubts remain regarding which organizations in Colombia are specifically receiving weapons from Peru and Ecuador. While the Oliver Sinisterra Front was among them, Romo said they were also equipped with weapons which are not part of the standard arsenal for Ecuador’s security forces, such as 5.56mm and 9mm caliber weaponry.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Ecuadorean army has long faced an internal crisis about some of its elements selling weapons to criminals. The country has also been unable to curtail its role as a transshipment point for other arms smuggling networks.

However, despite repeated operations, specifics about the origins of these weapons, the groups moving them and the criminal organizations receiving them, besides the Oliver Sinisterra Front, remain difficult to come by.

The involvement of members of the Ecuadorean army is well documented, but successful seizures reveal an international connection on a far larger scale. Ecuador’s government, while accepting responsibility for actions within its own military, has pointed to these larger arsenals coming from abroad through countries like Peru.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking

The weapons seized during “Operation Armageddon 9” were being moved to a “range of local groups” in Colombia, according to a high-ranking government source consulted by InSight Crime. More specific information than that, however, was not available.

Henry Troya, Ecuador’s former deputy mining minister, told InSight Crime that caches of high-powered weaponry were discovered in flyovers to detect illegal mining operations, including “bombs, grenades, missiles and long-range weapons.”

One high-profile case might shine some more light on this. In April 2018, a team of three media workers from the Ecuadorean newspaper El Comercio was kidnapped and later killed by the Oliver Sinisterra Front along the Colombia-Ecuador border. However, Colombian and Ecuadorean authorities have not released a detailed ballistics report about which weapons were used to kill them.

Ecuador has taken steps to curb the sell-off of its military equipment, but the practice still continues. Without major international assistance, the country does not have the investigative capacity to track the weapons coming in from outside, or to follow them once they move into Colombia.

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