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.