Part One | Drug Trafficking: Has Ecuador lost the Pacific?

Part One | Drug Trafficking: Has Ecuador lost the Pacific?

Key Points

+ In the five years since the United States withdrew its Forward Operating Location (FOL) from the Eloy Alfaro Air Base in Manta in 2009, there have been dramatic changes in the level of drug trafficking and counternarcotics efforts in Ecuador, and how the U.S.-led war on drugs operates throughout the Andean region, writ large.

+ In the decade prior to leaving Manta, American ships intercepted at least 80 fishing vessels suspected of carrying drugs or illegal migrants. If these interceptions are grouped by origin of capture, we see that offshore drug seizures, which were the most effective between 2005 and 2009, fell dramatically (to the point of almost vanishing) after the Manta FOL was closed down. 

+ According to official information from the Ecuadorean National Police, when the Manta FOL was operational (1999 – 2009) a total of 17 major drug seizures were achieved through maritime interdictions, totaling 81 metric tons seized. In contrast, no more than five metric tons have been captured in Ecuador in the three years after (2009 – 2012) the Manta FOL was shut down. Moreover, since 2010 only a partial register of drug seizures has been made available.

+ Ecuador is increasingly serving as a strategic country for the trafficking and storage of illicit narcotics. Its geographic importance lies in its location between Peru and Colombia (two drug producing countries) and its use of the U.S. dollar as national currency. Combined, these factors make Ecuador an attractive site to store and transit the almost 1100 metric tons of cocaine coming from Peru, Bolivia and Colombia on an annual basis.

+ Ecuador is ill equipped to deal with the increase in traffic of illicit narcotics surrounding and within its borders. To date, they still do not possess the adequate surveillance technology on its border with Colombia or in other major drug trafficking zones, such as its coast, the southern border with Peru and the Amazon region.

+ Ecuador’s strategic importance in drug trafficking and organized crime, has attracted major Mexican drug cartels to control distribution channels along Ecuador’s pacific corridor. Using transnational networks and high-level connections, these Mexican cartels operate within Ecuador to create and control new routes to traffic narcotics into larger consumer countries.

+ Other regional and extra-regional transnational criminal and drug trafficking organizations are increasing their activity in Ecuador. This includes new Colombian drug cartels that have been detected within the country, with remnants of the historic Norte del Valle cartel. As well as Russian, African and Italian mafias and organized crime syndicates, vying for control of transit routes towards Europe.

The United States withdraws from Manta

In the five years since the United States withdrew its Forward Operating Location (FOL) at the Eloy Alfaro Air Base in Manta, on the Pacific Coast of Ecuador, there have been dramatic changes in how the U.S.-led war on drugs operates in the Andes and the region, writ large.

The two most prominent reasons that accelerated the U.S. withdrawal from Manta were primarily political. The first were accusations by the Ecuadorean government towards the U.S. Coast Guard of abuse committed during maritime interdiction operations. The second was the March 2008 Colombian military raid on camps of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the Ecuadorean town of Angostura, killing 24 people, most notably the FARC’s second in command, Raul Reyes. Both incidents precipitated the decision made by Rafael Correa’s administration, which came to power in 2007, to terminate the U.S. Air Force FOL at Manta on September 18, 2009, once the ten-year treaty that established the FOL had expired.

The attack on the FARC camps in Angostura prompted a break in relations between Ecuador and Colombia, as the former viewed it as a breach of their sovereignty. The Ecuadorean political left, who enjoys political hegemony under the Correa regime, played on this momentum by raising suspicion that the U.S. had aided the Colombians in the FARC raid by providing an AWAC surveillance plane from its base in Manta. More than six years since the Angostura attack, these accusations have yet to be proven.

Prior to the withdrawal from Manta, the Ecuadorean government had already suspended part of its joint drug interdiction operations with the United States. Prompted by alleged misconduct by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Ecuadorean government decided to not allow U.S. authorities to board its ships while on international waters. This was an important development, because these offshore drug seizures accounted for a significant percentage of the total drug interdiction in Ecuador. Moreover, of the more than 80 fishing vessels intercepted by American ships for being suspected of carrying drugs or illegal migrants, only 21 cases were reported by human rights organizations to have involved the boarding, destruction and/or sinking of ships. But this was enough for Ecuadorean politicians, who used these cases as pretext for terminating the presence of the U.S. FOL in Manta, fulfilling Correa’s campaign promise and playing on the growing anti-US sentiments in Ecuador.

After Manta

Since the 2009 closing of the U.S. FOL at Manta there have been dramatic changes in counternarcotics operations in Ecuador, both in terms of actions and results. For instance, if drug interceptions are grouped by origin of capture, it is noticeable that offshore drug seizures were the most effective between 2005 and 2009, but fell dramatically (to the point of almost vanishing) after the Manta FOL was closed down.

According to official information from the Ecuadorean National Police, 20 metric tons were seized offshore in 2005, accounting for almost half the total drug seizures that year. The same amount was captured in 2006, this time comprising 60 percent of the total drug seizures. In 2009, the level of offshore captures fell to less than 4 metric tons (MT), about 5.8 percent of the total captured that year. In 2010, after the U.S. withdrawal from Manta, offshore captures virtually disappeared to less than one metric ton seized. Then in 2011 less than two metric tons were captured. After 2012 there are no numbers to report.

In summary, while the Manta FOL was operational, 17 major offshore drug seizures were achieved through maritime interdiction operations between 1999 and 2009, totaling 81 MT seized. In contrast, no more than five metric tons have been captured in Ecuador from 2009 to 2012, after the Manta FOL was shut down. Moreover, since 2010 only a partial register of offshore drug seizures has been made available.

This decrease in offshore drug interdiction runs parallel with an overall increase in drug seizures throughout Ecuador, reflecting the rise of trafficking as Ecuador increasingly serves as a hub for global drug trafficking. The average number of total annual drug seizures in Ecuador between 2000 and 2004 was slightly less than 15 MT but this number rose to more than 40 MT by 2012, and in 2013 48 MT had already been seized by October of that year. The final year the U.S. FOL was operational in Manta, this Andean nation had its largest number of drug seizures hitting a record of 68 MT in 2009. Indicating a large spike in overall drug trafficking in Ecuador. But in the two years following the withdrawal of the FOL, total drug seizures in Ecuador fell dramatically to an average of 22 MT, then spiked again the next two years, increasing to 42 MT in 2012 and more than 50 MT in 2013. According to statistics from the Red Latinoamericana de Seguridad y Delincuencia Organizada (Relasedor), a project that monitors and links indices of organized crime throughout the region, an average of 100 to 270 MT of cocaine passes and circulates through Ecuador in any given year.

While Ecuador has shown complacency in its offshore drug interdiction efforts since the Manta FOL has closed down, the U.S. continues to assert its dominance in counter-drug maritime operations. On December 18, 2013, the Marines of Ecuador received a request from the U.S. Coast Guard to inspect the ship Alehandra, which was detained 900 nautical miles (nm) from Ecuador’s coast. The crew did not carry identification, but they were believed to be Ecuadorian. The government of Ecuador neither confirmed nor denied this request, but the next day more than 400 kilograms of cocaine were reported found on the ship. As a consequence, U.S. authorities indicated that the crew of Alehandra would be tried in Florida rather than be turned over to the Ecuadorian authorities as had been requested.

More recently, on February 26, 2014, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted three other ships suspected of carrying illicit narcotics and Ecuadorean crewmembers, this time off the coast of Central America. In the case of the ship El Nino Leo, found off the coast of El Salvador, there were three Ecuadorean crewmembers and a Guatemalan, but the government of Ecuador could neither confirm nor deny the origin of these ships or its crewmembers. Thus, the U.S. Coast Guard detained the crew, seized the drugs, and again decided not to turn them over to Ecuador, denying their request to have the Ecuadorean crewmembers extradited to their country.

The ship Snayder Javier, found off the coast of Costa Rica on the same day, underwent a similar situation but with one caveat. They were turned over to the Ecuadorean Navy on March 7, 2014. When the ship was originally detected 425 nautical miles off the coast of Costa Rica, much like El Nino Leoit did not have a registration number and was boarded with three Ecuadorian crewmembers and one Guatemalan. The U.S. Coast Guard requested the ship’s point of origin, and was confirmed to come from Ecuador. On February 27, 2014, Ecuadorean authorities were informed that ten packets of cocaine had been found on-board; and were recovered in the ocean because the crew had been throwing them overboard during their pursuit. As in the past, Ecuador requested extradition of the Ecuadorian crewmembers to its maritime border with Colombia. This time the Direccion Nacional de los Espacios Acuaticos (DIRNEA), of the Ecuadorian navy, cooperated with the U.S. in the transfer of the three Ecuadorean crewmembers.

And finally, another three Ecuadorian crewmembers were detained on the Maria del Cisne, 514 nautical miles off the coast of Costa Rica. As in the previous two cases, Ecuador neither confirmed nor denied the origin of this ship or the crewmembers. But this time the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed that there were not drugs onboard. Nevertheless, on request by Ecuadorean authorities, the U.S. detained the crew and turned them over to DIRNEA on the maritime border with Colombia.

These cases show the level of uncertainty, inefficiency and ineffectiveness of Ecuador’s maritime interdiction operations. The drastic decline of offshore drug seizures in Ecuador, a once critical component of its counternarcotics efforts, coupled with the increase of trafficking in the country, indicate a weakened state who cannot meet the requirements needed to engage in an adequate national anti-narcotics effort.

The failure of drones and radar

Since the U.S. withdrawal from its Manta FOL, Ecuador has sought to enhance its own counternarcotics forces. This led to the decision to charge the Ecuadorian Armed Forces with the mission of counterdrug operations. Various laws approved by the Ecuadorean National Assembly in 2008, controlled by Correa’s political party the Alianza PAIS, facilitated the military incorporation into such activities because they had previously been restricted by their constitution. The Angostura attacks by the Colombian military accelerated this new position, and led to the expansion of duties of the Ecuadorean military.

One of the first measures taken to complement the Ecuadorean military’s increased role in counternarcotics was the $23 million dollar purchase of six Israeli-designed unmanned air vehicles (UAV) or drones in 2009, to operate out of Manta for counterespionage and counternarcotics efforts. The intent was for the UAVs to be deployed out of four ports: Manta, Guayaquil, Esmeraldas, and Salinas. Information would be exchanged through satellite between aircraft, ships, and vessels of Ecuadorean military, which would be located on three floating docks. But unfortunately, Ecuador’s inexperience led to several deficiencies with their new drone technology.

While the UAVs were purchased, no terms were arranged for the maintenance of these drones, which would add an additional $1.5 million a year. Nor was the interface between the drones and the land communications systems made operational. But perhaps the most limited aspect of these drones was that they had a maximum flight range of three hours a day and were inoperable in inclement weather.

The other technological development that was launched to replace the U.S. support out of Manta was a new radar system that could hold sustained records of aerial interdictions. This lack of indigenous radar capability was highlighted by the March 2008 attacks in Angostura, when the country’s detection systems failed to provide advance warning of the incoming Colombian armed raid on FARC camps, just two kilometers from their Colombian border.

In response to this shortcoming, the government acquired four radars from the Chinese company CETC for $60 million. According to the contract with CETC, the company had promised to deliver the new radars properly installed, integrated, and certified to function with Ecuadorean civil and military radars and communications systems for up to 18 months. Despite being operational, this inter-operability never happened and by 2014 Ecuador still did not have functioning radar surveillance on its border with Colombia or in major drug trafficking areas, such as the coasts, the southern border with Peru, or the Amazon.

While the contract for the Chinese radars was being discussed, the Directorate of Civil Aviation in Ecuador began the process of purchasing secondary radars for the airports of Manta, Puyo, Cuenca, and Lago Agrio. According to confidential independent reports: “Given the ineffectiveness of radar and surveillance systems at sea, most drug interdictions performed in the air are a product of information shared by Colombia and the United States, demonstrating the level of dependence that Ecuador still has on those countries’ surveillance and intelligence systems.”

Because the Ecuadorean military continues to struggle with its new mandate, and its lack of experience with new surveillance and reconnaissance technology impedes its counternarcotics efforts—this Andean nation has become a target for an increasing number of drug trafficking and organize crime elements from throughout the region and the world.

Ecuador’s new role in the global drug enterprise:

Ecuador continues to increasingly serve as a strategic country for the trafficking and storage of illicit narcotics. Its geographic importance lies in its location between Peru and Colombia (two drug producing countries) and its use of the U.S. dollar as national currency. Combined, these factors make Ecuador an attractive site to store and transit the almost 1100 metric tons of cocaine coming from Peru, Bolivia and Colombia on an annual basis.

“In the previous decade various changes within the business of drug trafficking emphasized the strategic importance of Ecuador. This dynamic changed due to the partial successes of the war on drugs, starting with Plan Colombia. The geography of the routes and/or ports of departure of cocaine in the region were displaced. Although the country with the largest participation in this activity is still Colombia, an increased number of drug seizures in countries like Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, and Brazil in the past few years serves as evidence of the appearance of new cocaine routes located in large centers of international consumption. According to Ameripol, an estimated 110 metric tons of cocaine pass through Ecuador from Colombia and Peru by air, land, and sea per year,” says the report.

While the U.S. continues to be the top drug consumption country in the world, there is a rise in the demand within Western and Central Europe. This has brought the emergence of new routes and new markets, to include: Eastern Europe, the Southern Cone, certain Asian countries, and Australia (ONUDD, 2012). This has also brought about the rise of powerful transnational criminal organizations with great capacity for regional infiltration, like: Mexican cartels, new criminal groups in Colombia, the Nigerian mafia, Chinese triads, the Russian mafia in collaboration with local Ecuadorean mafias who compete amongst themselves for control of logistical services for drug trafficking, suppliers, and routes throughout Ecuador.

Meanwhile, the implementation of the Merida Initiative in Mexico in 2006—“a joint initiative between Mexico and the United States with the aim of recovering various zones of Mexican territory overrun by cartels for the production and trafficking of drugs into U.S. territory”—has also impacted Ecuador. While Mexico is the principal beneficiary of the Merida Initiative, this project also includes other Central American states, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti within the framework of a greater North American strategy. The project generated criminal mobilization in the region, a result of the persecution and pressure exerted by the Mexican state on its principal cartels. Thus, given the importance of Ecuador within the illegal drug economy, the country has become a strategic site from which Mexican criminal groups can control Pacific drug routes.

Changes in international consumption have generated more constraints on political anti-drug activity in the region due to increased regionalism and complications within the drug economy and international organized crime groups. “The drastic drop in cocaine use in the United States caused a reduction in global demand. As the Andean region produces 100% of cocaine at a global level, this has important effects on the drug economy in the region and has caused a necessary shift to other types of activity such as money laundering, which has boosted the illegal economy in Andean countries as a strategy to offset losses and minimize risk in the illegal market.

The biggest change in the War On Drugs has to do with the recognition that drug trafficking is essentially an international business. The United Nations has reported that the price per kilogram of cocaine on American streets, adjusted according to the purity of the product, remained relatively stable between 2000 and 2009 at $100 to $120 USD per gram, but market factors such as the drastic drop in production in Peru caused a skyrocketing of prices in 2013. However, if the price is adjusted for inflation in addition to the degree of purity, then in the same period it rose from $140 to $240 USD per gram, without counting the data from 2013.

Data collected by Spanish criminologist Daniel Sanso-Rubert Pascual in collaboration with the Centro Superior de Estudios de la Defensa Nacional(CESEDEN) and the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (IEEE) demonstrates the benefit gained from breaking down coca sales profits. If we take a benchmark price of $100,000 USD per kilogram sold on American streets, the allocation of the profit is as follows: 1% to the wholesale producers, 15% for goods and services, 15% for the criminal organization in wholesale production sites, 19% for the criminal organization in the biggest sites of consumption, and 50% for retail organizations.

Thus, when the Office of the United Nations says that the drug business moves an annual amount of $320,000 million USD globally, it is referencing the retail price of drugs. That is why criminal networks are now vying for control of micro trafficking—the strategic regulatory element of drug trafficking power on a global scale. Demand has been displaced in the past decade from the United States to Europe, where consumption surpassed the 63 t annually consumed before 2000 to more than 250 t a year up until 2013. One gram of cocaine bought on the streets of Europe now costs up to three times as much as in the United States.

Another emerging drug market is in Latin America itself. As societies such as Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and Brazil rise out of poverty, so too does the regional consumption of cocaine rise. Potential consumption reaches 100 metric tons and Brazil and Argentina constitute 60% of the market demand according to a report published by experts Freddy Rivera and Daniel Ponton entitled “Micro-trafficking and Criminality in Quito.”

In any form of business or market transfer, Ecuador has become a strategic site for control of Pacific drug routes, especially on behalf of Mexican cartels. In their report, Rivera and Ponton assert that a criminal reorganization is occurring in the region, and this dynamic looks to Ecuador as a strategic site for logistical control of international drug trafficking. Because of this, complaints against and captures of Mexican drug lords have intensified, above all at Sinaloa in Ecuador. Mexican cartels use their networks and influential connections to operate from Ecuador and control new drug routes. New Colombian drug groups, with the remnants of the Norte del Valle cartel, also control these routes. Additionally, operations by transoceanic organized groups, such as the Russian and Italian mafias vying for control over traffic toward Europe, have been detected in the country.

Ecuadorian territory has always been a point of connection for cocaine trafficking in international markets, but now more than ever the evidence shows that Ecuador has become the launch pad for worldwide narcotics trafficking.