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Ecuador is terrorized by the explosion of Mexico-led drug trafficking

#Ecuador #terrorized #explosion #Mexicoled #drug #trafficking

Once a relatively peaceful neighbor of big cocaine producers Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has become a battleground for criminal gangs trying to control the drug trade, analysts and authorities say.

The violence is savage and takes many forms: car bombs, prison massacres and the hanging of corpses from bridges have become commonplace. Severed heads are found in the streets.

The South American country of 18 million, which for years was just a transit point for drug trafficking, has become a “sanctuary of organized crime,” former military intelligence chief Mario Pazmino told AFP.

“The explosions and assassinations we are seeing are messages of terror telling us that they, not the police, control a strategic area,” he added.

In 2020, Ecuador ranked third behind Colombia and the United States in terms of the amount of cocaine seized, accounting for 6.5 percent of the world total, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Hundreds of tons of cocaine leave its ports each year to be distributed around the world, although most of it goes to the United States and Belgium.

In a 2019 report, Ecuadorian intelligence said at least 26 criminal gangs were fighting for control of the lucrative market, but officials now say that number could have risen. Many of these criminal groups work with Mexican cartels.

And as the drug trade intensifies, so does crime.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, Ecuador’s murder rate in 2021 was 14 per 100,000 inhabitants, almost twice as high as in the previous year.

– Criminals “deviated into drug dealing” –

To understand how drug trafficking mutated in Ecuador, you have to go back to the early 2000s.

“In those years, Ecuador launched a tough campaign to eradicate the coca plantations,” Pazmino explained.

Coca leaf is the main ingredient used to make cocaine.

But just like in other countries, the initiative failed – whenever authorities destroyed crops, growers simply moved to a new area and started over.

A decade later, Ecuador even had a record acreage of coca plantations.

Failed anti-drug policies encouraged Mexican cartels like Sinaloa, Gulf Clan, and Los Zetas to advance into Ecuador, just as they had already done in Colombia.

Ecuador’s dollarized economy facilitated the cocaine trade and allowed for easy laundering of profits, while weak institutions and willing criminal groups to work together created a perfect money-making opportunity for those involved.

At the beginning of the Mexican infiltration, according to former prison warden Alexandra Zumarraga, was Jorge Luis Zambrano, known as “Rasquina” and the leader of the Los Choneros gang.

In 2010, Zambrano offered protection to the Sinaloa cartel, which was moving into the strategically located coastal province of Manabi.

There were also “members of the Latin Kings and Netas gangs … who turned to drug trafficking,” said a human rights activist who works with youth groups and requested anonymity over death threats.

For Martha Macias, the former director of Guayaquil’s largest prison, “Today’s drug dealers are the grandchildren of the Latin Kings and Netas who operated in Quito and Guayaquil and focused on robberies and hit-and-runs.”

The prison formerly run by Macias has seen the most prison massacres since February 2021, killing nearly 400 inmates.

Rival drug cartels often operate within prison walls, meaning their turf wars can unfold from within.

– ‘They saw an opportunity’ –

Until his assassination in 2020, Zambrano was the leader of Ecuador’s criminal gangs, which authorities said had as many as 25,000 members in a country with just 50,000 police officers.

His assassination sparked a leadership struggle both inside and outside the prisons.

With the spread of organized crime, some local gangs, such as the Lobos and Los Tiguerones, turned into micro-cartels.

“They saw an opportunity to buy drugs and process them in the country to then export them,” Pazmino said.

Both gangs work with the Mexican cartel Jalisco New Generation and have been responsible for deadly prison riots.

Around 300 tons of drugs have been confiscated in Ecuador since the beginning of 2021, said Interior Minister Patricio Carrillo.

But authorities are struggling to keep up with the cartels’ expanding business.

Fewer than 30 percent of drugs passing through Ecuador’s ports and airports are seized, despite a record 210 tons being seized last year.

“Around 700 tons of cocaine enter Ecuador from neighboring Colombia and Peru every year,” Pazmino said.

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