Some of the poor fishermen in Manabí and Esmeraldas Provinces are not poor any more.
Although most residents in the fishing towns on Ecuador’s north coast won’t talk about it, the few who do say they are noticing more expensive cars and new, state-of-the-art boats in the local harbors. “There aren’t too many of them,” says a man who lives near San Lorenzo. “This is a very poor community so anything new and fancy really stands out.”
A captain with Ecuador’s national police, who asked not to be identified, has an explanation for the new boats and cars. “It’s the drug business,” he says, adding that fishermen are being recruited by drug gangs to off-load drug shipments, store them in remote coastal areas and then reload them on speed boats headed north.
According to law enforcement authorities, drug shipments arrive at night in a variety of small craft, are unloaded into the fishermen’s boats and taken to shore in northern Manabí and southern Esmerladas Provinces. There are few roads in the area and many isolated beaches that are accessible only by boat.
They say the drugs are hidden in the hills above the beaches, where armed guards keep watch until the drugs, usually cocaine, are transported again by fishermen to waiting speed boats several hundred meters off shore.
The speed boats, called go-fast boats or cigarette boats, then head north, usually to Guatemala. They refuel en route on uninhabited islands where drug cartels maintain fuel supplies. In Guatemala, the drugs are off-loaded by members of Mexican cartels, where they are repackaged for shipment to the U.S. and Europe.
The small-scale operations have gone largely unnoticed as the government aims its anti-drug efforts at cartel activity in Guayaquil and the south coast. Several radar stations are being installed to stop the transport of drugs by small aircraft but the radar does not follow small boats entering and leaving remote drop points.
The police captain says that Ecuadorian authorities are aware of the growing transport trade and the role fishermen play in it. “All the attention is on the large shipments coming into the ports at Guayaquil and Manta and we not paying much attention to small operations but these also play a big role in the movement of drugs,” he says. “This is part of the overall transit system and it can’t be ignored.”
The police captain says there is price to be paid for the newfound wealth of the fishermen who sign on with the drug gangs. “There are two or three hundred of them in jail in Ecuador, Panama, and Guatemala. Even worse, there are also quite of few missing, probably dead.”
He adds: “I’m afraid there will be even more dead and in prison if we don’t launch a major effort against this very soon.”