Cartels recruit Ecuadorian fishermen to transport drugs; Some get rich while others disappear
By Liam Higgins
Fishing is a subsistence living for most of those who work the trade on Ecuador’s coast. It requires long hours, most of them at night, in leaky open boats, far from shore. That’s why eyebrows are raised when some fisherman suddenly buy new boats with powerful motors.
Even more eyebrows are raised when the fishermen don’t come home.
“It’s the drugs coming from Bolivia and Peru, going north to Colombia,” says Maria Cardenas, whose husband disappeared earlier this year. “The Mexicans and Colombians come in and offer big money and some fishermen can’t resist and they go into the business. They can make a lot money but they can also disappear..”
According to Ecuadorian and U.S. law enforcement officials, the drug cartels recruit poor fisherman from Puerto Bolivar, in the south, to Esmeraldas, in the north, to run loads of drugs, often unprocessed, to the coast of Colombia. Some of the fisherman with better boats and bigger motors will transport drugs as far as Mexico and the southern U.S. west coast.
“It is dangerous but lucrative work and many of the fishermen in the business are arrested or just disappear,” says Guillermo Alvarez, law enforcement officer with the Ecuadorian navy. “Since Ecuador has closed off the overland transport routes, the ocean is the only way to ship the material north and the cartels have no trouble recruiting.”
According to Alvarez, Ecuadorian authorities have arrested more than 100 fisherman with boats loaded with coca and processed drugs. “The number of arrests is going up and the courts are having trouble processing all the cases,” he says. He adds that the U.S. drug enforcement is becoming more active in international waters off Ecuador and the rest of Latin America.
The U.S. says it has made 12 arrests so far this year off Ecuador and another 27 offshore of Colombian.
Last week, U.S. consul Andrew Sherr met with the families of some the drug runners arrested by U.S. authorities in international waters, collecting information for upcoming trials. He was also gathering information about how drug cartels, mostly based in Mexico, recruit Ecuadorian fisherman.
One of his meetings was in Jaramijó, a small fishing village in Santa Elena Province. “He listened to our stories, about the people who have become suddenly rich and about those who never came home,” said Cardenas. “We told him about how our brothers and husbands are threatened by the drug people if they refuse to work for them. Sometimes, they shoot them, but this is out on the ocean so there are no bodies.”
According to Alvarez, it is often difficult for law enforcement agencies to get information about cartel activity because of the close-knit nature of most fishing communities. “People are scared to talk because of what the cartels might do,” he says. “But when they do talk they have a great deal to tell us.” In one village near Puerto Lopez, police have received 158 complaints since since late 2020.”
Both the national police and the Ecuadorian coast guard, a branch of the navy, have added resources to combat the growing problem. “The government is doing what it did 10 years ago to stop drugs moving through the central valley, form Peru to Colombia,” Alvarez says. “We shut off that route so now we need to fight it in the Pacific Ocean but that’s not easy. It’s a big ocean and there are many poor fisherman trying to make a living.”