Is Ecuador becoming the 'UN of crime'?

The arrest of a suspected Russian mafioso in Ecuador highlights the increasing presence in the country of international organized crime, says guest blogger Elyssa Pachico.

By , Guest blogger

On June 8, Ecuadorean authorities announced the arrest of Maxim Myasnikov, a Russian national wanted for crimes involving weapons and explosives, according to his Interpol profile. Wanted on extradition charges in Moscow, Mr. Myasnikov had allegedly been living in Ecuador since 2006 – two years before a new law allowed visitors from almost every country in the world to gain an automatic, 90-day visa in the Andean nation.

According to national newspaper El Comercio, Myasnikov is among three Russians with pending extradition requests, believed to be hiding in Ecuador. One was reportedly extradited on April 30, 2010, while the other is still at large.

Myasnikov is not the only suspected member of an international criminal syndicate to be extradited from Ecuador this year. In May, authorities announced the extradition an Eritean and 66 other nationals believed to be involved in a human smuggling ring that trafficked migrants from Asia and Africa. In April, police arrested a top leader of a powerful Colombian drug gang. More recently, Ecuador extradited a member of Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), accused of handling business deals with the Sinaloa Cartel. The Mexican group is also believed to have operations based in the country.

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These kinds of incidents appear to support a recent statement by Jay Bergman, the director of the Drug Enforcement Administration's operations in the Andes, who said that Ecuador is becoming the "United Nations" of organized crime.

Ecuador's growing importance as a meeting ground for transnational crime contrasts to Venezuela's reported emergence as the new hotspot for illegal armed groups. According to a July 7 hearing held by a US Subcommitee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, Venezuela is increasingly hospitable to Hezbollah, a militant Muslim group. Colombian rebel groups the FARC and the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional - ELN) are also believed to have encampments and supply networks based Venezuela.

InSight Crime considers that concerns about the growth of transnational criminal organizations in Ecuador are justified. There are several uncomfortable developments in Ecuador that have contributed to this phenomenon: political unstability, lax visa policies, proximity to some of Colombia's most prolific drug cultivation areas, and the adoption of the US dollar as official currency (which has facilitated money laundering). The country's unofficial policy of tolerance and inaction towards the FARC, which has lasted decades, has granted the rebel group a key area for rest and regrouping, out of reach from the Colombian security forces. The ongoing presence of the FARC has also indirectly drawn Mexican groups like the Sinaloa Cartel, who seek to do business with the guerrillas on Ecuadorean territory and buy cocaine.

In contrast, concerns about the growth of "terrorist" threats in Venezuela may be overstated. A panel of experts, who testified before the US Subcommittee hearing, did offer convincing evidence that Hezbollah has some presence in Venezuela. Multiple panel members testifed that Margarita Island, about 200 miles from Caracas, is likely a fundraising center for the group; Venezuela's close diplomatic relationship with Iran was also identified as a major concern for US policy interests.

Yet as pointed out by analyst James Bosworth, Hezbollah is a relatively containable threat in Latin America. The group does have cells in Latin America, but their ability to threaten or disturb regional security is insignficant when compared to groups like the FARC or the Sinaloa Cartel. A much bigger priority, in terms of regional security interests, may be the growth of Russian, Colombian, Mexican, Chinese, and other crime networks in nearby Ecuador. But there is no indication that any US subcommittees will be holding hearings on the topic anytime soon.

--- Elyssa Pachico is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.

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