Ecuador has sent another 10,000 more troops to the border with Colombia, hoping to close down room for maneuver for Colombian rebels and paramilitary groups, which use the country to move drug shipments, gain logistic support and launder money. However they are not the only transnational criminal organizations to have set up shop in Ecuador.
President Rafael Correa stated that the border with Colombia was “the gravest security problem facing the country, a hot frontier with organized crime, drug trafficking, irregular groups, FARC and paramilitaries.” He ordered the deployment of 7000 soldiers (some 18 percent of army manpower) and 3000 policemen to guard the 600 km-long frontier with Colombia, much of it comprising dense jungle.
What Correa knows is that Ecuador is increasing in importance as a transshipment point for Colombian drugs, as revealed by the jump in seizures in 2011 to more than 25 tons of cocaine, up from 18 tons in 2010. Drug shipments are not just heading up the Pacific Coast to Central American and Mexico, but being shipped to the European market, often via Africa. Jammed between the two biggest cocaine producing nations in the world, Colombia and Peru, Ecuador’s importance cannot be underestimated for the drug trade. It was here in July 2010 that the first ever fully submersible drug submarine, capable of carrying eight tons of cocaine, was found.
There is also evidence that drug crops, both poppy and coca, are being sowed in Ecuador, although the levels are still very small. Since the adopting of the US dollar as the national currency in 2000, the country has increased in importance as a money laundering center. In a rare action against money laundering in August 2011 the Ecuadorean authorities traced more than $6 million from the Colombian Norte Del Valle Cartel, which had been washed through the financial system between 2009 and 2011.
Ecuador has long been the rearguard area and logistical base for the Southern Bloc (fighting division) of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Its leader and member of the seven man ruling FARC Secretariat, Milton de Jesus Toncel, alias ‘Joaquin Gomez,’ is believed to move constantly across into Ecuador from the Colombian provinces of Putumayo and Nariño.
The presence of the FARC in Ecuador came into sharp focus in March 2008, when the Colombian air force bombed a rebel base two kilometers inside Ecuador, in Angostura, killing 25 rebels, among them one of the movement’s top leader Luis Edgar Devia, alias ‘Raul Reyes.’ The incident led to Ecuador breaking off diplomatic relations with Colombia, which were only “fully normalized,” when President Manuel Santos visited Ecuador in December 2011. Files from the computers and memory sticks of Raul Reyes revealed ties between the FARC and elements of Correa’s administration. What has happened since 2008, perhaps as a result of the publication of the FARC files, is that the Ecuadorean government has taken a more aggressive stance against Colombian rebels operating on Ecuadorean soil.
In the most recent evidence of this stance, in December, five FARC rebels were arrested on the Ecuadorean side of the Putumayo River than marks the border between the two nations, all armed and uniformed, with about a ton of living supplies and 200 kgs of explosives. These are just the latest in a series of arrests that have forced the FARC to adopt a far lower profile in Ecuador, although their roots remain deep, particularly with frontier communities where they are known to have recruited Ecuadorean citizens.
Another Colombian group, the Rastrojos, is also believed to have a permanent presence in Ecuador. This new generation paramilitary group, called a BACRIM (banda criminal), dedicated to drug trafficking, has presence in the Colombian border departments of Putumayo and Ecuador and has agreements with the FARC. A Colombia drug baron, Jhon Jairo Vasco Lopez, alias ‘El Nico’ was believed to control local drug distribution in Quito as well as run a network of assassins. While Colombian criminals have set up shop in Ecuador, they are just one flavor of transnational criminal groups that have put down roots.
Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel is known to have presence in Ecuador, shown by the March 2011 arrest of nine operatives. The Russian mob is also present, as seen with the arrest of Maxim Myasnikov, in June 2011. The Andean chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Jay Bergman, stated that Ecuador was becoming a “United Nations” of organized crime, also citing the presence of Albanians, Ukrainians, Italians and Chinese mafias. A report by the UN, also published in June last year, said that a rise in contract killings was another sign of international organized crime setting itself up in Ecuador.
While the main international focus is currently on Mexico and spreading violence in Central America, some parts of South America are seeing an increase in criminal activity thanks to the development of international, and some homegrown, transnational criminal groups. 2012 promises more violence in Ecuador if this challenge is not met.