For Ecuador’s Fishermen, ‘Vueltas’ Rarely End in a Return

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A new report sheds light on US authorities’ controversial practice of detaining Ecuadorian fishermen acting as drug mules in international waters and holding them captive on off-shore “prison ships,” often without the option to be tried at home.

The report by Ecuadorian consulting firm, Parametría, takes an in-depth look at how Coast Guard ships, ill-equipped to handle prisoners, detain Ecuadorian fishermen in international waters. It states that these men allegedly endure months of incommunicado extrajudicial detention, oftentimes shackled and underfed.

According to US officials interviewed by the New York Times in 2017, these conditions do not violate federal rules of criminal procedure as the men are not formally under arrest while being detained by the Coast Guard. Parametría estimates that 700 Ecuadorian fishermen are being held in the US.

Eventually, the men are charged as drug traffickers, usually in courts in Florida, with 96 percent of them pleading guilty in order to reduce a potential 20-year prison sentence to around 10.

SEE ALSO: Ecuador Fishermen Jailed Abroad Illustrative of ‘Drug War’ 

And while Ecuador’s prison system faces its share of challenges, the report found that 80 percent of the fishermen request repatriation-transfers to serve their sentences in prisons at home, where they can see their families beyond a time-limited call every few weeks. Parametría reports that 40 percent are stuck in ‘pending approval’ limbo, while 18 percent are denied and must wait to reapply. The men do not know if their application is held up by the US or Ecuador – their requests for information are usually met with silence by both countries.

In October 2019, Filter Magazine has reported on the conditions of desperate poverty, exacerbated by environmental disaster and insecurity, that drive these men to transport Colombian cocaine north on its route to the US. The trips are known as vueltas, meaning “return trip,” and can bring in $10-20,000 for the fishermen.

InSight Crime Analysis

At a time when the United States is deporting record numbers of Latin American migrants,  it is ironic that low-level Ecuadorian drug mules, fighting to serve their sentences at home, are being kept in the US. It begs the question: who is this policy for?

In testimony before the House Armed Service Committee in May 2019, Admiral Craig Faller praised the Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-S), which patrols the Eastern Pacific, for its “return on investment” despite adding it only interdicts only 6 percent of detected drug flows through the Pacific.

In 2018 Ecuador signed a memorandum of understanding with the JIATF-S, which formalized an operational arrangement in place since 2006, allowing the Coast Guard to “board, and search Ecuadorian vessels reasonably suspected of drug smuggling.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

JIATF-S has said these extreme measures are justified because detainees provide vital intelligence. Yet these Ecuadorian fishermen are acting at the lowest ranks of the narco-hierarchy and there is little evidence to suggest stopping them causes any real disruption to drug flows or drug trafficking networks.

The ironic backdrop to this battle is that between 2009-2017, as the policies outlined above took shape, the U.S. deported almost 3.3 million migrants, many of whom have committed no crime. Many of these fishermen may well be wishing for the same treatment.

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