As the Mexican drug cartels shift their transportation routes from overland to the Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos Islands have become a major transit point. According to U.S. drug interdiction authorities, 85% of cocaine, both refined and unrefined, along with marijuana derivatives, is arriving in the U.S. by sea, up from less than 40% in the late 1990s.
Although it grows very little coca, the raw material for cocaine, Ecuador has become a key point in the drug transportation system from Peru and Bolivia, the world’s major growers of coca. Increasingly, the U.S. State Department says, the two countries are refining and shipping high-grade cocaine, as well as other drugs.
Some of the smaller out-islands of the Galapagos have been used by a variety of small vessels, including fishing boats, submersibles, and speed boats, as drop-off points for drug smugglers, Ecuador’s navy says. There is no infrastructure on the out islands and the transit points change frequently, depending circumstances, authorities say.
Much of the drug cargo never actually reaches the Galapagos but is transferred between drug-running craft in the off-shore shipping lanes. A popular transport method involves cartel scuba divers attaching drug shipments to the bottom of large freighters and tankers off-shore of Peru and Ecuador, then removing them to load onto other vessels near the Galapagos.
Law enforcement officials say the drug trade does affect the tourist industry on the Galapagos since the activity occurs in remote areas and offshore.
Most cartel shipments leaving Ecuadorian waters are headed for Guatemala, where they are reloaded on other ships for the final trip to California and Northern Mexico. The Mexican El Pacifico and Los Zetas drug cartels control almost all drug shipping operations.
In July, Ecuador naval commander Fernando Noboa, said that overseas drug shipments are increasing rapidly in the waters off Ecuador and around the Galapagos. “We simply don’t have the resources to keep up with the expansion of the trade,” he said. “We have requested more money from the government to buy more reconnaissance vessels and well as to increase intelligence activities.”
Noboa said that Ecuadorian ports, especially Manta and Esmerldas, are being used as loading points from drug shipment. “The shipments come in by sea as well as overland, to be reloaded onto other boats and ships, most of them legal and unaware they are involved.”
A major problem, he adds, is that the only about 2% of the cargo leaving the country’s ports can be physically checked. “Again, this is a matter of resources,” he says
Diego Perez, former prosecutor in Esmeraldas, agrees with Noboa and says there is drug shipping activity is all Ecuador ports. He also said that a number of small cocaine processing labs are operating in Esmerladas and Manta. “This is a situation that needs immediate attention to keep it from expanding,” he said.
If there is good news, it is that overland drug shipments through Ecuador’s central valley have fallen dramatically. “The shipments that once moved from Peru to Loja, through Cuenca and Quito have almost stopped,” Perez said. “The cartels have found that it is much more economical to ship by sea.”
Perez said that Ecuador has also escaped the drug violence seen in other Latin American countries. “The footprint of the smugglers is small in Ecuador, concentrated in a few coastal port areas, which means we have seen little bloodshed. The challenge is to keep it that was as we work to eliminate the trade altogether,” he said.
Perez added: “As the case has been for years, we are simply a way station in feeding the insatiable drug addiction of the U.S. Until they control their problem we will continue to see the shipments go north.”