By Liam Higgins
Although it’s been largely out of the headlines, a deadly resurgence of the international drug trade is building in Colombia and Peru. Unfortunately, Ecuador finds itself in the middle and is struggling to keep a potential blood bath out of the country.
Some law enforcement experts worry that northwest South America, Colombia in particular, could see a return to 1980s-level violence as coca cultivation and cocaine production boom.
“All indications are that things could get very bad within the next two to five years,” says Randall Evans, a consultant to several U.S. law enforcement agencies. “The amount of coca production in Colombia and Peru is exploding. I worry that we will see the kind of drug-related violence in cities like Medellin, Cali, and Lima that we saw during the day of the drug lords.”
Estimates provided by the U.S. State Department and international law enforcement agencies show that the amount of land cultivated in coca is increasing by 50% a year in Colombia and 30% in Peru. Production is also increasing in Bolivia, according to reports. Ironically, last year’s peace agreement between leftist rebels and the Colombian government, is credited, in part, for the production uptick in Colombia.
Stuck between Colombia and Peru, Evans says Ecuador faces a huge challenge. “The country has done a good job so far of keeping the drug business out but the recent arrest of Washington Prado shows that it is lapping, big-time, at its shores,” he says.
Prado, called the “Pablo Escobar” of Ecuador, was arrested two weeks ago in Colombia, charged with operating a massive coca and cocaine transport network, running drugs from Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Central America to the U.S. Although Prado’s network, which is accused of dozens of murders, worked mostly outside of Ecuador, it had bases in the port cities of Manta and Esmeraldas.
In addition to Prado, more than two dozen of his men were also arrested in Ecuador, most of them awaiting trial in the country’s maximum security prison in Cuenca. For more on the arrests, click here.
“Everyone was amazed at the size of his operation,” Evans says. “It rivaled what Escobar was doing in Colombia 40 years ago. Unfortunately, it’s a sign of things to come and shows the job that Ecuadorian law enforcement faces.”
An indication of the challenge is that Ecuadorian drug police seized a record 3.2 tons of cocaine in just four days, between May 4 and 7. “The volume of the trade is increasing and it is putting pressure on us to control, at least in Ecuador,” says national police captain Jorge Sanchez, who is based in Manta. Most drug seizures are being made offshore, he said, although some busts have been carried out in Guayaquil, Manta and Esmeraldas.
“Almost all of it is headed to the U.S. and Europe,” Sanchez adds. “We just happen to be on the route.”
According to Evans, Ecuador faces the challenge not only of keeping drugs out of the country, but avoiding the murderous blood bath he predicts for Colombia and Peru.
“Ecuador has one of the lowest murder rates in the western hemisphere, almost five times lower than Colombia,” he says. “To keep that record, they will need to devote huge resources to policing cities like Esmeraldas and Manta. If the drug trade gets a foothold in the those cities, it will very hard to dislodge, and the murder rate will soar.”
He adds: “As the movie says, there will be blood in Colombia and probably Peru — I see no way around it — but Ecuador is in the fortunate position that it produces almost no coca itself and can keep most of the crime out. But it is a tall order.”