Continents

How a Peaceful Country Became a Gold Rush State for Drug Cartels

A total of 210 tons of drugs seized in a single year, a record. At least 4,500 killings last year, also a record. Children recruited by gangs. Prisons as hubs for crime. Neighborhoods consumed by criminal feuds. And all this chaos financed by powerful outsiders with deep pockets and lots of experience in the global drug business.

Ecuador, on South America’s western edge, has in just a few years become the drug trade’s gold rush state, with major cartels from as far as Mexico and Albania joining forces with prison and street gangs, unleashing a wave of violence unlike anything in the country’s recent history.

Fueling this turmoil is the world’s growing demand for cocaine. While many policymakers have been focused on an epidemic of opioids, like fentanyl, that kills tens of thousands of Americans every year, cocaine production has soared to record levels, a phenomenon that is now ravaging Ecuador society, turning a once peaceful nation into a battleground.

“People consume abroad,” said Maj. Edison Núñez, an intelligence official with the Ecuadorean national police, “but they don’t understand the consequences that take place here.”

It’s not that Ecuador is new to the drug business. Squeezed between the world’s biggest cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru, it has long served as an exit point for illicit products bound for North America and Europe.

But a boom in Colombia in the cultivation of the coca leaf, a base ingredient in cocaine, has created a surge in the drug’s production — while years of lax policing of Ecuador’s narcotrafficking industry have made the country an increasingly attractive base for drug manufacturing and distribution.

The violence linked to drugs began to spike around 2018, as local crime groups jockeyed for better positions in the trade. At first, violence was mostly confined to prisons, where the population had surged following a toughening of drug penalties and increased use of pretrial detention.

Eventually, the government lost control of its penal system, with prisoners coercing other prisoners into paying for beds, services and security, and even holding the keys to their own prison blocks. Soon, penitentiaries became operating bases for the drug trade, according to experts on Ecuador.

International organized crime saw a lucrative opportunity to expand operations. Today, Mexico’s most powerful cartels, Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generación, are on-the-ground financiers, along with a group from the Balkans that the police call the Albanian mafia. Local prison and street crime groups with names like Los Choneros and Los Tiguerones work with the international groups, coordinating storage, transport and other activities, according to the police.

Cocaine, or a precursor called coca base, enters Ecuador from Colombia and Peru, and then typically leaves by water from one of the country’s bustling ports.

Of the roughly 300,000 shipping containers that depart each month from one of Ecuador’s most populous cities, Guayaquil — one of South America’s busiest ports — the authorities are able to search just 20 percent of them, Major Núñez said.

These days, drugs are transported from Ecuador’s ports hidden in reconstructed floors, in boxes of bananas, in pallets of wood and cacao, before eventually landing at parties in U.S. college towns and clubs in European cities.

In Guayaquil, a humid city framed by green hills, with a metropolitan population of 3.5 million, rivalries among criminal groups have spilled into the street, producing a horrific and public style of violence clearly meant to induce fear and exert control.

Television news stations are regularly filled with stories of beheadings, car bombs, police assassinations, young men hanging from bridges and children gunned down outside their homes or schools.

“It’s so painful,” said one community leader, who asked not to be named for safety reasons. The leader’s neighborhood has been transformed in recent years, with children as young as 13 forcibly recruited to criminal groups. “They are threatened,” the leader said. “‘You don’t want to join? We will kill your family.’”

In response, Ecuador’s president, Guillermo Lasso, a conservative, has declared several states of emergency, sending the military into the streets to guard schools and businesses.

More recently, Los Choneros and others have found another source of income: extortion. Shopkeepers, community leaders, even water providers, trash collectors and schools are forced to pay a tax to criminal groups in exchange for their safety.

Inside prisons, extortion has been common for years.

On a recent morning in Guayaquil, Katarine, 30, a mother of three, sat on a curb outside the country’s largest prison. Her husband, a banana farmer, had been taken into custody five days before, she said, following a street fight.

He called her from prison, she said, asking that she wire money to a bank account belonging to a gang. If she didn’t pay, he explained, he would be beaten, possibly electrocuted.

Katarine, who for safety reasons asked that only her first name be used, eventually sent $263, roughly a month’s wage, which she acquired by pawning her belongings.

“I was more than desperate,” she said, asking why the authorities were not doing more to control this practice. Every person thrown into prison, she said, was another taxpayer for the criminal groups.

The violence has traumatized many Ecuadoreans in part because the shift in the country’s fortunes has been so dramatic.

Between 2005 and 2015, Ecuador witnessed an extraordinary transformation, as millions of people rose out of poverty, riding the wave of an oil boom whose profits the president at the time, Rafael Correa, a leftist, poured into education, health care and other social programs.

Suddenly, housekeepers and bricklayers believed their children might finish high school, become professionals and live entirely different lives than those of their parents. Today, those Ecuadoreans are watching their neighborhoods deteriorate amid crime, drugs and violence.

The country’s decline was also deepened by the pandemic, which as elsewhere in the world, hit the economy hard. Today, just 34 percent of Ecuadoreans have adequate employment, according to government data, down from a high of nearly 50 percent a decade ago.

In some neighborhoods, community leaders say, financial hardship is pushing young people into crime, worsening the security crisis.

On another morning in Guayaquil, Ana Morales, 41, stood in a large cemetery, visiting a white crypt holding the remains of her son, Miguel, who had been a hairstylist and a father. Ms. Morales said that when work dried up during the pandemic, he stole a cellphone to pay for medicine and food, landing him in prison.

That turned out to be a death sentence. While he was there, a riot broke out among prison gangs.

He was one of more than 600 people killed in prison feuds since 2019, according to the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, a Guayaquil nonprofit.

Ms. Morales helped found the Committee of Relatives for Prison Justice, a group suing the Ecuadorean state, accusing it of violating the human rights of prisoners and calling for comprehensive reparations.

Her goal is to speak for “the other mothers who cry, who have stayed in their homes gripping their pillows.”

“We are in a terrible crisis,” she said, “both in the prisons and outside in the streets.”

The crisis has spilled into the government, where some officials have been accused of being co-opted by criminal groups. Journalists have fled, prosecutors have been killed and human rights activists silenced for investigating or speaking out against crime or corruption.

Mr. Lasso’s approval rating is low, according to surveys, and in May, facing impeachment over corruption charges, he dissolved the National Assembly and called for new elections. Ecuadoreans will elect a new president and National Assembly in August, with a possible runoff in October, as the country finds itself at a political crossroads with violence intensifying.

In Guayaquil, the police have tried to combat crime with night raids in high-violence areas.

One recent evening, a caravan of police vehicles screeched through the Guayaquil suburb of Durán. At a half-dozen stops they spilled out in body armor and black balaclavas, ordering men to the ground and sending children in pajamas shrieking into their mothers’ arms.

They made three arrests over several hours, sometimes seizing fist-size white rocks, presumably drugs, from inside a house.

Back in the car, the officers spoke about the challenges they faced.

One officer, who asked for anonymity so that he could speak freely, said what Ecuador really needed was a leader with a laserlike focus on crime. One name he raised was that of El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, who has earned global attention, but also widespread accusations of human rights abuses, for his mass rate of imprisonment and plummeting crime rate.

“We need someone like the man in El Salvador,” the officer said, explaining that he liked how Mr. Bukele “takes the reins on security.”

A lack of funds, the officer explained, meant officers paid out of their own pockets to fix their vehicles. Instead of radios, they used their own phones to communicate. Because the criminals have far better technology, he said, “we’re in an uneven fight.”

Reporting was contributed by Thalíe Ponce in Guayaquil, José María León in Quito and Genevieve Glatsky in Bogotá.

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