U.S. warns tourists of violence in seven provinces; Thousands of fishermen jailed for drug trafficking; El Niño preparations includes temporary bridges

Jun 26, 2023 | 15 comments

The U.S. State Department is advising travelers to exercise “extreme caution” if they visit Ecuador’s El Oro, Manabí, Santo Domingo, Los Ríos, Santa Elena, Cañar and Carchi provinces.

In a statement issued last week, the State Department said that “robberies, kidnappings and violent deaths are common” in the seven provinces, recommending against all travel in the cities of Huaquillas in El Oro and Quevedo in Los Ríos.

The statement said the “activity of criminal gangs related to the illegal drug trade” was the major factor for rising crime rates in the provinces. “The danger is highest in the region close to Ecuador’s coast,” it said.

Many of the fishermen serving prison sentences transported drugs in small open boats, such as these in Manabí Province.

In an earlier statement, the State Department issued a similar warning for travel in Guayas Province. It added that travel was safe in most of Ecuador’s Andean region.

Thousands of fishermen jailed for drug trafficking
At least 2,000 Ecuadorian fishermen are in prison in the U.S. and Latin America for transporting drugs in their fishing boats, according to the Association of Mothers and Wives of Fishermen. Ecuador’s Navy reports that the number could be as high as 2,500.

About 300 of those prisoners come from Jaramijó, a small fishing community in Manabí Province.

“The primary method of transport of cocaine and other drugs from Ecuador north is by small fishing boats,” says Manabí Police Commander Patricio Almendáriz. “The fishermen are poor and some of them decide to work for the drug organizations which offer $5,000 to $30,000 per trip, depending on the distance and the amount of drugs transported. Many cannot resist the temptation.”

According to Almendáriz, some larger fishing boats transport drugs as far north as Mexico and even southern California. “The shipments are intended for the U.S. market,” he says, adding that in addition to those apprehended and jailed, dozens of fishermen disappear each year, most of them presumed to be victims of violence.

The fishermen arrested and imprisoned serve terms of as along as 25 years, depending on the amount of drugs they are caught with, says Almendáriz.  Countries with the most Ecuadorian prisoners are Colombia, the United States, Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras.

The high number of prisoners from Jaramijó is a tragedy for a community of less than 20,000, say Almendáriz. “We spend a great deal of effort establishing contact between the prisoners in other countries and their families,” he says. “Unfortunately, the drug gangs are very active here and the number of fishermen working for them does not appear to be doing down. The consequences of being caught, however, can be devastating.”

The number of imprisoned fishermen from Colombia and Peru is even higher than Ecuador’s, the Navy reports. An estimated 10,000 Colombians and 3,000 Peruvians are serving prison terms for drug transport in fishing vessels in several countries.

El Niño plan includes temporary bridges
Among the measures of President Guillermo Lasso’s most recent decree is the construction of dozens of portable bridges to be used in case of El Niño floods. Called Bailey bridges, the pre-fabricated, steel truss structures can be set up quickly when permanent bridges are destroyed.

“One of the most serious problems in the 1998 El Niño is that communities were cut off by floods that destroyed bridges and tens-of-thousands of people were unable to leave flooded areas,” says Public Works Minister César Rohon. “In several cases, it was months before new bridges could be constructed. Under the president’s order, we will begin fabricating the Bailey bridges immediately, so they are ready when they are needed.”

According to Rohon, provision of the temporary bridges is one of several issues addressed in Presidential Decree 784 to prepare for El Niño. “We are now on yellow alert, which allows us to initiate disaster planning, and this will be elevated to red alert when flooding rains begin. We learned a very painful lesson 25 years ago and many lives were lost because of lack of preparation.  We don’t want to repeat those mistakes.”

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