Field Operations officers from US Customs and Border Protection intercepted about 154 pounds of cocaine, with an estimated value of $2 million, last month hidden on a ship arriving at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The size and value of the seizure are significant in their own right. However, the fact that the vessel was arriving from Guayaquil, Ecuador, is a sign of how that South American nation, nestled between Colombia and Peru on the Pacific coast, has become a major hub of cocaine trafficking.
Other operations in recent weeks illustrate how Ecuador has become an embarkation point for cocaine from the Andean region of South America.
In early February, the Ecuadorian government announced that a ship flying the country’s flag had been stopped off the coast of Central America and found to be carrying nearly 1,800 pounds of cocaine.
Later in February, the Ecuadorian government reported that it had dismantled a criminal organization in Santa Elena, on the country’s central Pacific coast, that had been sending drugs via ship to Central America. During the operation, named Operation Sea Witch, authorities recovered more than 1,400 pounds of cocaine.
Drug seizures and arrests also indicate that the expansion of trafficking operations in Ecuador has been taking place for several years.
“One of the largest increases in cocaine seizures in the past five years has been observed in Ecuador, where the amount of cocaine seized rose by over 242 per cent, amounting to 50 metric tons in 2014,” the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board wrote in its latest report.
In the first two months of 2015 alone, there was a fivefold increase in seizures of illegal drugs compared to the same period the previous year.
In late 2012, a former Ecuadorian military intelligence official (who has clashed with the current government) said the previous seven years had seen a 90% increase in the number of sea drug-trafficking routes.
And over the last three years, plying those trafficking routes has taken a heavy toll on Ecuadorian fishermen: At least 300 of them have been taken into custody in the US, Colombia, and Guatemala on drug-trafficking charges over that span, according to a report from Ecuadorian news site El Comercio, cited by Insight Crime.
Ecuador’s proximity to Colombia and Peru — two of the world’s largest producers of cocaine — has helped facilitate its rise as a narcotics-transshipment point; that rise has been assisted by powerful criminal organizations as well as the underpreparation of Ecuador’s security forces.
Colombian criminal groups are also heavily involved in trafficking through Ecuador, and at least one group, Los Rastrojos, is believed to have a permanent setup in the country.
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel has extensive ties to Colombian cocaine production, including a relationship with the paramilitary drug trafficking group Los Rastrojos, and Sinaloa operatives have been arrested in Ecuador in the past.
The growth in maritime trafficking out of Ecuador is likely the result of a confluence of factors within the country, including high difficulty finding work for youths between 15 and 24 years old and heavy overfishing in the sea surrounding Ecuador that forces fishermen to seek out other ways to make money.
Increased cocaine production in both Colombia and Peru has also fed Ecuador’s sea-going narcotics industry.
In 2014, Colombian was the world’s leading producer, and growers there planted 44% more coca, the plant from which cocaine is made, than they did in 2013.
The country as a whole produces more of the crop than second-place Peru and third-place Bolivia combined, according to The Washington Post.
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Peru has also vied with Colombia for the top cocaine-producing spot, and while Peruvian coca producers ship much of their crop east through Bolivia or from their own Pacific ports, some of it likely makes its way through Ecuador.
Of the cocaine seized in the US in 2014, “approximately 90 percent … was of Colombian origin, while approximately 10 percent was sourced to Peru, the highest percentage in at least a decade,” the DEA reported in its 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment, adding that most Peruvian cocaine headed to European or Asian markets.
Almost 90% of the cocaine that makes it to the US is transported through the Mexican/Central American corridor, the DEA noted.
Caught between powerful traffickers and a dearth of legitimate opportunities, Ecuadorian fishermen often find themselves in a dangerous spot.
“If you get involved in [drug trafficking], you will make a lot of money, but afterwards, there are only two ways out: You get killed or you go to jail,” an Ecuadorian fishermen who had a run-in with drug smugglers told Mexican newspaper El Universal in 2014.
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