The recent assassination of Ecuador’s presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, has drawn global attention. This tragic event highlights the ongoing security challenges in the country’s political arena.
The country’s strategic location between Colombia and Peru, two of the world’s top drug producers, places it at the heart of drug trafficking routes. Key coca-growing regions in Colombia (Nariño and Putumayo) and Peru (Huallaga Valley) are close to Ecuador, making the country’s landscape an attractive setting for organized crime and drug operations. Furthermore, Ecuador’s adoption of the U.S. dollar in 1999 led to powerful and unregulated commercial and financial networks, erasing traces of previous exchange and financial practices. These networks, essential for money laundering, have extended across both public and private sectors. In the political realm, the judiciary and police systems’ shortcomings make them susceptible to criminal influence. Ecuador is currently believed to be laundering around $3.5 billion each year, a threefold increase from 2016, and a significant rise from the estimated $500 million to $1 billion prior to 2009.
While Ecuador’s significance in the drug trade is primarily as a processing and distribution center, it has recently seen the unprecedented emergence of coca cultivation on the border with Colombia, with traffickers blending the crops with legitimate ones, making it challenging to identify the illicit plantations by spectral signatures. One study points to approximately 1,700 acres, up from an estimated 250 acres of coca prior to 2009.
Ecuador’s comprehensive road system effectively links its borders to ports, airports, and an extensive coastline. Notably, its coastal ports are hotspots for maritime drug transfers. With this combination of efficient transport routes and port facilities, Ecuador is a pivotal player in the drug trafficking chain.
Cocaine from Colombia and Peru often travels through Ecuador, destined for Mexico, the United States, or Europe via West Africa. The provinces of Esmeraldas, Sucumbíos, and El Oro along the border are particularly vulnerable. The northern border is of special note, with organizations like the FARC, a Colombian Marxist rebel group, previously playing active roles during their militant days. Following FARC’s demobilization, several criminal factions—leftovers from the demobilization of right-wing paramilitaries such as the Aguilas Negras, Los Rastrojos, and Los Urabeños—emerged. Later, groups opposing disarmament initiated new illegal entities, including the Guerrillas Unidas del Pacifico and the Clan del Golfo.
Drugs from Colombia’s Putumayo region typically make their way into Ecuador via the Sucumbíos province to El Carmen, which serves as a central collection point for coca that is later refined in Ecuador. This refined product is then dispatched from ports in El Oro. As a result of these activities, Ecuador’s entire northern border experiences heightened violence, as underscored by a 2018 assault on the San Lorenzo police station and the tragic assassination of journalists. The Oliver Sinisterra Front, a FARC splinter group involved in the drug trade alongside Mexican cartels, was implicated in both incidents.
Adding to the complexities, Ecuador provides chemical precursors essential for drug production in neighboring nations. While the cultivation and harvesting of the coca leaf are fundamental to cocaine production, processing it requires various chemical precursors. However, there’s a noticeable absence of bilateral efforts to monitor and control the movement of these chemicals across Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Some precursors such as propyl acetate are not restricted in Ecuador and, as a result, these substances cannot be seized under Ecuadorian law.
Despite Ecuador’s noteworthy seizures of cocaine, most happen at ports, highlighting a gap in maritime control and security. In September 2016, the leaders of Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Colombia gathered in the Galápagos, to consolidate an agreement around the expansion of the maritime territories of the three nations. As the Caribbean route became saturated, criminal groups turned their attention to Ecuador’s extended maritime pathways. With the pressure from Colombian traffickers and the proliferation of Mexican cartels, notably the Sinaloa Cartel, Ecuador has struggled in safeguarding its waters.
While Ecuadorian authorities often lag in intervention, Colombian forces have been able to detain these fishermen in their waters who are later extradited to the United States under drug trafficking charges. Recognizing the lucrative prospects, local fishermen have engaged in this illicit trade, although many are also coerced into this illicit trade due to threats.
Ecuadorian drug traffickers coordinate with local fishermen to move drugs and these fishermen, well-versed with the sea routes, outmaneuver police and naval patrols. Ecuadorian officials have also been implicated in issuing false licenses to fishermen involved in the drug trade.
Ecuador lacks scanners at ports to detect drugs and resources to monitor the fast boats used to transport them. While Ecuador receives assistance from the United States primarily via satellite tech and special interdiction aircraft, there are blind spots that traffickers exploit. A unique challenge emerges in the Galápagos. It seems this region acts as a refueling hub for maritime drug transport logistics. From here, vessels typically proceed towards the United States, often making another pitstop in Nicaragua for supplies. In fact, most of the cocaine consumed in the United States is moved primarily through the Pacific.
Quito has increasingly involved the country’s army in countering drug-related issues. In 2015, an amendment to Article 158 of the National Constitution empowered the Armed Forces to support comprehensive state security, especially against drug trafficking. But alarmingly, there are numerous incidents of corruption and co-optation including numerous incidents involving drugs at the Manta Air Base, corruption within the police force, and associations with drug cartels. Adding to the complexity, the Ecuadorian National Intelligence Secretariat (Senain) was primarily engaged in political intelligence operations. This manifested a strategic failure in anticipating actions and threats to the state from organized crime, and halted plans for military actions and alliances with the United States in the fight against drug trafficking.
The situation in Ecuador is tied to Colombia’s, as evidenced by the implication of Colombian nationals in the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio. Between 2021 and 2023, in the region of Cauca, an epicenter of the coca economy in Colombia, a 12.5-kilogram bundle of coca leaf dropped 45 percent while a kilogram of coca paste dropped 30 percent. Another source in Cauca reports that the bundle of coca leaf was now going for 30,000 pesos, a significant tumble from an 80,000 pesos mark before 2021. Similar drops have been recorded throughout Colombia. But this declining price trend mirrors a global phenomenon observed between 1976 and 2001, where cocaine and heroin prices, adjusted for purity, plummeted despite heightened control measures. Moreover, the increase in the production capabilities of other nations, like Peru, Bolivia, and even countries outside South America, has created a saturated market.
The Colombian coca leaf economy’s recent decline paints a complex picture, encompassing both micro and macro elements. At the heart of this decline is the paradoxical interplay of overproduction with reduced market prices. While Colombia historically held dominion over coca cultivation, the last two decades have seen shifts in cultivation patterns. A marked increase in the acreage dedicated to coca cultivation resulted in a glut. This wasn’t a simple case of increased acreage; the potency of coca cultivation methods transformed. Innovations and advancements in techniques resulted in the amplification of yield per acre, as documented by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Yet, while Colombia’s cultivation surged, the global scene changed. Previously limited to the Andean region, coca cultivation sprawled out to nations such as Paraguay, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. This geographical decentralization meant that the global supply was no longer majorly dictated by the Andean trio of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. With a broader spectrum of countries entering the fray, the market was invariably saturated.
Cocaine, despite its historical prominence, has also begun facing competition from a new adversary: synthetic drugs. The narcotics market experienced a shift and users now had a variety of synthetic options, including Fentanyl, which challenged the traditional monopoly held by coca-based products. This transformation has eroded the demand for cocaine, placing further downward pressure on coca leaf prices.
Political changes in Colombia also played a significant role. The demise of guerrilla leader alias Mayimbú in 2022 sent ripples across the protection ecosystem for coca growers and traders. This upheaval potentially initiated a displacement in coca cultivation zones, thereby affecting supply chains and regional market dynamics. Furthermore, the FARC’s demobilization in 2017 led to power vacuums in coca-rich areas. Without the FARC’s regimented control, unchecked growth precipitated, intensifying the overproduction scenario.
Cali’s Mayor Jorge Iván Ospina reported that armed factions, well-versed in market mechanics, discouraged coca cultivation. They were acutely aware that oversupply could be detrimental to their profitability. Simultaneously, the influx of Mexican cartels in Colombia and tensions with local ones, further perturbed the equilibrium, shaping cultivation practices and regional dynamics.
Colombian president Gustavo Petro’s administration ushered in a distinct anti-drug strategy, marking a paradigmatic shift from its predecessors. Instead of an aggressive stance against traffickers and growers, the administration’s emphasis pivoted towards toleration and appeasement. This policy transition, both naive and incompetent, accelerated the overproduction. The gears of coca eradication slowed, seizures diminished, and the gates for cocaine production swung open.