US sees Ecuador emerging as new cocaine centre

BOGOTA,  (Reuters) – Ecuador is becoming a “United  Nations” of organized crime with drug traffickers from Albania  to China using it as a staging ground to strike deals with  freelance Andean cocaine smugglers, a U.S. official said.

Ecuador is sandwiched between the world’s top two cocaine  producers, Colombia and Peru, helping turn the Andean nation of  14 million into an under-recognized haven for international  drug deals, the anti-drugs official said.

“We have cases of Albanian, Ukrainian, Italian, Chinese  organized crime all in Ecuador, all getting their product for  distribution to their respective countries,” Jay Bergman, DEA  director for the Andean region of South America, told Reuters.

Colombian cartels controlled global cocaine distribution  networks in the 1980s but are now splintered and weakened after  a crackdown by the country’s security forces, backed by  billions of dollars in U.S. aid.

The Colombian gangs now work mainly as suppliers, handing  over dangerous trafficking jobs to Mexican cartels — who  control access to the world’s largest drugs market, the United  States — and other international crime groups working in  Europe, the No. 2 destination for illegal drugs.

With increased scrutiny in Colombia, traffickers prefer to  move drugs quickly across its land borders to Ecuador and  Venezuela and hook up with business partners, Bergman said.

“If I’m an Italian organized drug trafficker and I want to  meet with my Colombian counterpart … I would probably prefer  to meet in Ecuador than to meet in Colombia,” Bergman said.

“(It’s easier to) have my passport stamped as Ecuador and  say, ‘Yea, I went to the Galapagos islands for vacation,’“ he  said of the nature preserve made famous by Charles Darwin.

President Rafael Correa’s government insists it is doing  all it can to chase and deter traffickers inside Ecuador.

Bergman acknowledged the government was making strides  combating smugglers, including significant seizures like a  98-foot (30-meter) drug-toting submarine captured last year.

Ecuadorean police have also arrested top Colombian kingpins  and confiscated multi-ton shipments of cocaine.

“They are doing a pretty bang up job in terms of basic  interdictions with a fraction of the capabilities and the  resources of the Colombians,” he said.    Ecuadorean officials could not immediately be reached for  comment, but this weekend Correa appeared to win a referendum  to reform the justice system with measures he says will help  fight corruption and crime.

Correa dropped a visa requirement in 2008 so that visitors  from any country can stay for up to 90 days, in a move to  promote free movement and boost tourism.

But some Ecuadorean analysts say that has led to a spike in  the presence of foreign criminals. Ecuador modified the law  last year asking for tourist visas from several countries in  Africa and Asia.

Powerful Mexican cartels are the largest buyers of  Colombian cocaine to supply the massive U.S. market.

They buy mainly from Colombian producers, either leftist  guerrillas growing vast coca fields to fund a decades-long  insurgency or new criminal gangs that trace their origins back  to paramilitary groups, also veterans of Colombia’s conflict.

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