Ecuador seized over three metric tons of cocaine in less than a week, a large haul that signals the country’s growing role in the transnational drug trade as well as the possibility that increasing drug flows through the country could lead to security challenges.
A massive 3.2 metric tons of cocaine were seized in just four days in Ecuador during several police operations between May 4 and May 7, reported El Universo on May 8.*
The drugs were seized both at sea and on land along the country’s Pacific coast. The shipments were reportedly destined for the United States and Europe.
One of the metric tons was seized in the Manabí coastal province, and another metric ton in the Esmeraldas province, also along the coast.
Interestingly, both these provinces were transit points for trafficking routes used by Washington Prado Álava, alias “Gerard” or “Gerald,” to smuggle cocaine from Tumaco in Colombia to Ecuador’s Pacific coast.
Prado, a criminal figure virtually unknown to the public until his recent capture in Colombia in April, was dubbed the “Pablo Escobar” of Ecuador after authorities stated that his nameless organization moved an astounding 250 metric tons of Colombian cocaine in a span of two years.
As InSight Crime previously reported, the armed branch of Prado’s organization had secured Esmeraldas, located close to the border with Colombia, to ensure the transit of cocaine from the neighboring country’s Nariño department to Ecuador’s Manabí and Guayas provinces, from where the maritime shipments were launched.
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Ecuador has long been a transshipment nation. It is bordered by two of the world’s main coca-producing countries, Colombia and Peru. As far back as the 1970s, the real Pablo Escobar reportedly moved raw Peruvian coca across Ecuador to Colombia where the plant would be processed into cocaine.
However, there have been recurrent signs in recent years of an increase in Ecuador’s role in the drug trade, which may eventually have adverse consequences for security in a nation considered one of the safest in the region.
Discoveries of multi-ton shipments of cocaine, at times breaking decades-old records, now appear common in Ecuador. Meanwhile, total seizures have increased year on year. In 2016, the country intercepted 110 metric tons of drugs, according to El Comercio. From this figure, 61 metric tons were cocaine seized during the first 11 months of the year, a quantity that surpassed the total of 59 metric tons of cocaine seized in 2015, according to the US State Department’s 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.
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Additionally, within the context of Colombia’s peace process and the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), criminal groups have been taking control of crop-growing territories abandoned by the guerrillas. These areas have included the coca cultivation hot spot Tumaco in Nariño department. It is therefore little surprise that reports describing Prado’s massive drug trafficking operations point to Tumaco as one of the points of origin of the cocaine.
Beyond Ecuador’s growing transshipment role in the international drug chain, the rising seizures could also suggest a certain efficiency on behalf of Ecuadorean authorities. Between January and July 2016, the country carried out 4,800 operations against drug trafficking and dismantled 29 criminal groups, according to Ecuador’s interior ministry.
At a rate of six homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, Ecuador currently enjoys one of lowest murder rates of any country in Latin America and the Caribbean. But the increase in drug activity could eventually constitute a challenge to the country’s security. Prado, for instance, is accused of having ordered hits against several Ecuadorean officials in order to preserve his operations.
Moreover, the movement of drugs through the country may feed the Ecuador’s local consumption market, potentially generating conflict between trafficking groups for market control. In addition, reports have already pointed to corruption within certain state institutions as a direct consequence of drug smuggling activities.
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While Ecuador’s criminal landscape has traditionally been forged by foreign criminal organizations — in particular Colombian, and more recently Mexican groups — the unveiling of Prado’s network also indicates that the vast criminal profits to be made in the country can fuel the emergence of powerful homegrown drug trafficking organizations.
* Shortly after this article was published, on May 11 the Ecuadoran police announced the seizure of more than 5 tons of cocaine apparently destined for Panama and Spain. News outlets described the seizure as the largest in the country’s history.