Is Ecuador prepared to counter rise in organized crime?

Ecuador has been described as the 'United Nations of organized crime,' but authorities may underestimate the repercussions, writes guest blogger Elyssa Pachico.

• A version of this post ran on the author's site, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

An assessment by Ecuadorian security forces reportedly says that Ecuador is home to an increasing number of organized criminal groups, and that the authorities have underestimated the problem.

El Comercio reports (in Spanish) that a review by the military says that drug trafficking and organized crime may soon overwhelm the country, if "adequate measures" are not taken in time.

According to the newspaper, the 225-page report warns that if drug-related violence rises, the army will be charged with tackling the problem.

Foreign drug trafficking organizations like the Sinaloa Cartel have been present in Ecuador "for years," according to a police intelligence report quoted by El Comercio.

According to the newspaper, the police report suggests that the security forces have underestimated the extent of the problem because drug-related killings are relatively low compared to Mexico. "What is worrying is that the authorities do not fully understand what is happening with the problem of organized crime. The 'Mexico effect' is not yet visible in Ecuador," the report says.

The police assessment reportedly says that the main entry points for drug shipments include the cities of Macara, Tulcan, San Lorenzo, and Nueva Loja (see map, below). The primary exit points for drug shipments headed overseas are the port cities of Manta, Esmeraldas, Muisne, Puna, Rocafuerte, and Puerto Bolivar.

Drug traffickers use go-fast boats and submarines to transport their wares from the coast, then meet up with boats on the high seas who collect the cocaine loads and take them to Honduras, the document reportedly says. Other times, go-fast boats stop at the Galapagos islands to refuel and continue on to Central America.

The report adds that two major drug seizures in 2007 and 2008, part of an operation dubbed Green Hurricane, are evidence of Ecuador's increased importance as a drug transit country for transnational criminal groups. During the operation, narcotics police seized 3.78 tons of cocaine in southern Ecuador, and another 4.70 tons near the border with Colombia.

These reported negative assessments from the security forces are an indication that they believe they lack the resources to properly confront organized crime. The government recently ordered some 7,000 soldiers and 3,000 police to the northern frontier with Colombia, after President Rafael Correa said that border was "the gravest security problem facing the country."

But the northern border region is just one part of the problem. Along the country's coasts, trafficking gangs are increasingly reliant on semi-submersibles to transport cocaine. Police found a 12-acre poppy field in central Ecuador in December, a highly unusual discovery in a country that is generally free of illicit drug crops. In Quito, Colombian gangs have been accused of controlling much of the local drug trade. One US drug official described Ecuador as the "United Nations" of organized crime, due to the number of transnational criminal groups (including Russian and Chinese) that have set up shop here.

Mexican groups in particular have a growing foothold in Ecuador. In February, police arrested a man described as the main link between the Sinaloa Cartel and Colombian drug trafficker Daniel Barrera, alias "El Loco." Authorities arrested nine operatives who allegedly worked for the Mexican group in Ecuador last year; the investigation also led to the arrest of a top Sinaloa Cartel lieutenant, Victor Felix, in Mexico. The Sinaloa Cartel reportedly has two armed cells working along Ecuador's southern border. According to the US State Department, the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, and Colombian rebel group the FARC all move cocaine through Ecuador.

If the security forces have in fact warned that organized crime could spill out of control unless measures are taken, this suggests that the situation is becoming critical. If authorities do not meet the challenge, it may yet turn into a national crisis.

– 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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