According to national and international law enforcement experts, Ecuador faces a growing danger of drug war violence from neighboring Colombia. “Conditions are deteriorating throughout Colombia with the resurgence of the drug trade and the dismantling of guerrilla groups, especially in the southern part of the country,” says Mike Emerson, a consultant to foreign countries doing business in Latin America.
So far, Emerson and others say Ecuador is doing a good job keeping the drug trade out of the country.
“We have dedicated a large part of Ecuador’s law enforcement and military budgets to patrolling the border with Colombia,” says Tito Castellano, a colonel in Ecuador’s National Police Anti-drug Unit. “We have controlled the highway shipment routes north from Peru and Bolivia and will continue to work to contain the violence on the border.”
According to Emerson, a former agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the Colombian government was able to control drug production and shipment for almost two decades. “After the big cartels were taken down in the 1980s and 1990s, efforts to contain the (drug) trade were fairly effective,” he says. “The tide has recently turned unfortunately,” he says. “Since 2015, the area of coca production has doubled and the number of production operations in the country has skyrocketed.”
Equally troubling, Emerson says, is the beginning of heroin production in Colombia as well as boom in the number of new methamphetamine labs. “Most of the new production facilities are going in around Medellin and Cali, and that’s where the violence is ramping up, but the crops are grown mostly in the south, many of them in close proximity to Ecuador,” he says.
Castellano says that during the last decade, Ecuador has shut off most of the overland transportation of raw and processed coca products from the south headed to Colombia. “The route through the central valley has been eliminated and we are no longer worried of production facilities being built in Quito, Riobamba and Cuenca,” he says. “Today, our concern is off shore but also for port cities like Manta and Esmeraldas.”
Castellano points to the mounting number of large drug busts in the shipping routes off Ecuador’s Pacific coast as evidence of the success of law enforcement efforts.
Why the drug trade resurgence?
Although there are number of factors responsible for t he reactivation of the drug trade in Colombia, Emerson says the big one is the government’s peace agreement with FARC rebels. “Those guys controlled much of the real estate in southern Colombia. They had their own drug business but, in their self-interest, they also kept it out of other areas. After the peace treaty with the government was signed, other groups, like the Gulf Clan and the Mexican cartels, have moved in to fill the void.”
Emerson believes that Ecuador can keep most of the drug trade and violence outside of its borders. “Their big advantage is that there are almost no coca crops in country. They are surrounded by it but, for several reasons, it has never taken root there.”
He adds: “But Ecuador has a big, big challenge. They have to keep up what they’re doing and work harder to control the coastal transport routes. The cartels are trying to set up operations in Guayaquil, Manta and Esmeraldas, and the government can’t afford to let that happen. They see what’s happening in Medellin today, and remember Pablo Escobar, and you don’t want it coming to an Ecuadorian city.”