Is Ecuador Poised to Become a Heroin Producer?

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In August, authorities in Ecuador eradicated the largest poppy crop of the year, representing nearly a third of the total number of plants found in 2012 and bolstering the notion that the country could be a heroin producer.

The Ecuadorean army reported destroying 500,000 poppy plants on August 13 in Alausi, Chimborazo, in central Ecuador. This was the third significant find in Chimborazo this year, where 410,000 plants were eradicated in May and another 188,000 in July. In 2012, officials found 120,000 plants in the province in March and 411,000 in April.

While the most significant finds have occurred in Chimborazo, it is not the only place where recent eradication efforts have focused. The neighboring province of Tungurahua saw two other plantations found, one in September this year, and another in April last year.  Plants were also recently destroyed in Carchi, on the Colombian border, and in Cotopaxi, located northwest of Tungurahua.

These finds are not isolated, but part of a wider pattern. Since 2009, Ecuador has seen a significant growth in the number of poppy plants destroyed, with one small find in Sucumbios in 2005, another find of 50,000 plants in 2008 in the northern province of Tulcan.  115,580 plants were destroyed in 2009; 128,653 destroyed in 2010, according to figures from a 2011 report on illicit crops in Ecuador by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).  This compares with 1.8 million in 2012 according to the US State Department, and over 1 million so far this year. The only official figure found for 2011 was 22,149 specifically stipulated “opium poppies,” reported by the US State Department.

Despite the increasingly large poppy finds, there is a lack of hard evidence that heroin or its precursors, morphine base or opium latex, are now being produced in Ecuador, which has long been a transit nation for Colombian heroin. The Ecuadorean government has vehemently denied this Andean nation is a drug producer.

Pedro Gallegos, former head of Ecuador’s antinarcotics division, said in 2011 that the existence of poppies did not indicate heroin was being produced in the country, as the plants grow wild in many regions. This year, the Ecuadorean government angrily rejected information misprinted by the Organization of American States (OAS), which falsely stated the country had eradicated 918 hectares of “heroin” in 2010. The government claimed: “Ecuador, as is known throughout the world, is not a producer of these substances [heroin].”

However, this raises the question: If Ecuador is not a heroin producer, and the poppies growing are “wild,” why would authorities be upping eradication efforts, as appears to be the case based on the growing volume of crops being found?


InSight Crime Analysis

Ecuador has long been, and continues to be, a major transit point for Colombian-produced heroin, with Ecuadoreans often used as “mules” to move the product. This year alone has seen numerous heroin busts: In October, two Ecuadoreans were caught near the Colombian border with 200 capsules of heroin, thought to be destined for the major port of Guayaquil. In September, another two Ecuadoreans were caught at an airport in Panama with over 100 capsules of heroin in their stomachs, attempting to board a flight to the Dominican Republic. In June, a Colombian heroin trafficker was extradited to the United States on charges he led a ring that used Ecuadoreans to traffic the drug to the US on international flights out of Ecuador.

There have also been past reports of opium latex produced in Peru being trafficked through Ecuador by family clans that grow and process opium poppies and use the so-called “hormiga” (ant) system — with numerous mules each carrying small quantities — to move the base product into neighboring countries and from there into the United States.

However, there are a number of signs that Ecuador is on the verge of becoming — or perhaps has already become — a production point in its own right. In the 2011 illegal crops report, the UNODC wrote: “This increase [in poppy findings from 2009 to 2010] could indicate on the one hand better control by authorities, or on the other a growth in the boundaries of this crop, which would indicate that this illicit activity is gaining ground and could turn into a bigger problem in the short term.”

A problem with the reported poppy finds is that most of them — save the 2011 number provided by the US State Department — do not differentiate between opium poppies and wild poppies, the latter of which contain little morphine. However, the nature of various finds have indicated to security forces that the crops are cultivated intentionally, as they have been found interspersed among other legal crops.

Another point of interest is that despite apparently declining Colombian heroin production, there is no notable pattern of declining seizures of the drug in Ecuador, as might be expected. Between 2000 and 2010, the area of poppy cultivation in Colombia fell from 7,500 hectares to 341 hectares, according to the UNDOC, while the US State Department reported that 302 hectares were eradicated in 2011, compared to 696 in 2010. Ecuadorean authorities, meanwhile, seized 185 kilos of the drug in 2012, 152 kilos in 2011, 266 kilos in 2010, 148 kilos in 2009 and 144 kilos in 2008.

While no heroin laboratories have yet been found in Ecuador, security expert Ricardo Camacho said in 2012 that the number of poppy plants found — though small compared with traditional producer countries — “indicates that the narcos are testing and experimenting in the country to know where it is suitable for them to plant or build processing laboratories to lower costs.”

Much of Colombia’s poppy production is based in Nariño, on the border with Ecuador, and is run by so-called “mini-cartels,” rather than major trafficking organizations. Given Ecuador’s importance as a transit nation, contributed to by its porous borders, it is conceivable that Colombian traffickers have shifted some production across the border. This has a precedent in the apparent expansion of coca crops into Ecuador by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but the fact that many of the recent poppy finds have been far from the border, in central Ecuador, means this theory cannot be applied across the board.

If Ecuador is being considered as a new point for heroin production, this shift fits into the region’s broader pattern of migrating drug production. This migration has occurred with Mexican organizations in Central American countries such as Guatemala, with methamphetamines, cocaine, and possibly heroin, as well as in Argentina, long a transit nation and haven for international drug traffickers, which appears to have become a center of cocaine production.

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