October 17, 2023No Comments

Ecuador’s Dangerous Crossroads: Gangs, Trafficking Pathways and Future Perspectives

Authors: Shams Jouve and Isabelle Despicht - Crime, Terrorism and Extremism Team

Ecuador making headlines: brutal assassinations and increased gang violence

As of today, Ecuador is ranked as the least safe country in Latin America, finding itself in the midst of a  bloody turf war, with soaring violence linked to organised crime, civil unrest as well as drug trafficking. Just a glance at the crime rate of 2021 paints a sobering picture of Ecuador's current state of affairs, revealing an alarming 79.79% increasecompared to the previous year. Fast forward to 2023, homicide rates, too, are set to increase up to 40 per 100,000 individuals.

This surge in violence was accompanied by the assassination of at least six political figures, including presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, whose death made headlines in August 2023. The murder of Villavicencio, who previously worked as an investigative journalist and uncovered corruption cases in the country, serves as a potent symbol of the growing influence of gangs and their willingness to assert dominance and territorial control in Ecuador.

How have Ecuador's geographical location and institutional weaknesses contributed to criminal influence?  

Ecuador's geographical features have long played a role in shaping trafficking routes in the region. Ecuadorian ports represent key transit points for drugs, which are then shipped to Europe and the United States. Laura Lizarazo, senior analyst for the Andean region at political risk consultancy Control Risks, explains: "The market is flooded with cocaine and criminal organisations are adapting to explore this over-production". Equally, Ecuador represents an ideal transhipment point for both human trafficking and illegal arms trade

For decades, Ecuador was shielded from cocaine-related violence that plagued many other countries in Latin America. This was the result of various factors, among others, an agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), one of the most active armed groups in the Andes region. The FARC, a Marxist guerrilla group founded in 1961, underwent extensive shifts to finally become involved with the drug trade in Latin America in the 1990s. By 2016, it controlled a staggering 60% of the world's most productive coca crops.

Despite the aforementioned, the Ecuadorian government remained engaged with the FARC in the 2000s and 2010s. Meanwhile, the 21st century observed a phenomenal expansion of illegal trafficking and Ecuadorian gangs' influence in the area. Initially mainly governed by Mexican and Colombian cartels and mafia groups, working with local criminal entities as intermediaries, the country slowly became a key transhipment point for illegal trafficking.

New players, such as Chinese mafias in the case of human smuggling, emerged. Local criminal groups gained considerable power and organisational capabilities, including control over a considerable part of the prison system, and gang violence led to several prison massacres and an unprecedented homicide rate.

Another significant obstacle is the emergence of protection rackets, which arose out of prison gangs empowered by police intelligence. These illicit webs thrive at developing patronage networks by establishing connections with the government and accessing its resources. They frequently enlist public officials and coerce them, reaping benefits from state dismantlement. Amongst others, they have been recognised for their role in disseminating prison intelligence to purposely misinform the public

Amid the aforementioned, several government policies over the last decades have participated in declining criminal activity through social inclusion, police reform, and innovative approaches to criminal justice, including the legalisation of several local gangs. However, public institutions remain weakened by endemic corruption, facilitating criminal activities and compromising state integrity.

The state's inability to monopolise the use of legitimate violence, along with its lack of transparency, has highly damaged public trust in authorities. This further compounds the already challenging economic situation, which fuelled a series of protests over a cost of living crisis in summer 2022. 

While all these challenges exist, Ecuador currently aims to build a robust and adequate legal framework to tackle organised crime through local, interstate and transnational cooperation. Nevertheless, implementing such legislation appears to be a significant challenge due to insufficient resources and the lack of independence of Ecuador's judiciary

Source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/the-national-flag-of-ecuador-15652224/

A wake-up call for Ecuador’s democracy

Juan Papier, Human Rights Watch's acting deputy director for the Americas, considers Villavicencio's death to be  "a wakeup call for Ecuador's democracy". Indeed, strong security policies are needed to reinforce public authorities and tackle transnational organised crime.

As part of the Global Programme on Implementing the Organized Crime Convention, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) currently works with Ecuador representatives to establish a National Strategy against organised crime. This partnership aims to reinforce international cooperation and local coordination between representatives of various Ecuadorian institutions. Moreover, the Republic collaborated with the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) "Ecuador SinCero Programme" to tackle Corruption Prevention, Transparency and Citizen Participation between January 2020 and June 2023. This cooperation programme articulated various initiatives, mainly focusing on Public Integrity and the Open Government Model.

Conclusive remarks 

While it seems certain that crime and violence rates are still set to rise, recent political events, including Fernando Villavicencio’s assassination, could well represent a pivotal moment for Ecuador. However, to stand ground on these incredibly difficult challenges, measures tackling rampant corruption and promoting judicial independence, transparency and the accountability of perpetrators are needed. 

To that end, it is in Ecuador’s interest to seek international guidance in building an effective National Strategy against Transnational Organised Crime and strengthen its collaboration with neighbouring countries. Yet, international cooperation can only complement guidance and concrete domestic efforts. Governmental initiatives must improve public sector management and emphasise civic education and engagement. 

In addition, more effective measures should be implemented concerning the protection of local whistleblowers, which still fall short of adequate reporting mechanisms, as demonstrated by the case of Julio Rogelio Viteri Ungaretti v Ecuador, brought before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), in which a member of the Ecuadorian military suffered reprisals for noting irregularities, including acts of corruption within the Armed Forces. 

Nevertheless, reducing corruption, strengthening the domestic legal system, improving public sector management, and promoting education and citizen participation will certainly not prove enough to the immense task of strengthening Ecuador’s institutions. Change needs to come from within. Ecuador has an inherent interest in innovating and coming up with solutions that truly allow for this change to be sustainable. Perhaps it could in the future explore the avenues brought by emerging technologies, which may be used, for instance, to reduce human interaction and control corruption within administrative processes.

January 25, 2022No Comments

The Colombia-Brazil Drug Connection

By: Giovanni Giacalone and André L. V. C. Carvalho.

Image Source: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frontera_entre_Brasil_y_Colombia#/media/Archivo:Trijunction.JPG

On January 3rd, 2022, Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office announced the arrest of five men in Colombia’s southern department of Putumayo. The detained individuals are now facing drug trafficking charges as they are accused of running their own marijuana plantations and cocaine labs in Colombia’s department of Cauca and using the local indigenous communities to transfer the drugs near the Colombia/Brazil border before having it shipped across to Brazilian territory by boat.

During the operations, the police seized over $250,000,000 from the organization, together with a large quantity of cocaine, marijuana, and three cargo carriers.

The Attorney’s office also revealed the identities of the arrested individuals: Medardo Alfredo Cifuentes Giraldo “Gordo”, in charge of coordinating the purchase, storage, and concealment of the merchandise, as well as handling transactions on the Colombian-Brazilian border; Wilmer Alexander Bastidas Bernal “Engineer”, indicated by investigators as the financial link; Kelly Johana Gómez Gómez “Mona”, allegedly responsible for recruiting transporters and guards at the collection centers; Pablo Giovanny Landázuri Cortés “Negro”, one of the alleged drug producers; and Víctor Ferney Giraldo Barrera, “Vaca”, who is credited with transporting the drug.

The Attorney General’s Office also revealed that the drug loads were supposed to be sold to major criminal enterprises operating in Brazil, such as Comando Vermelho (CV) - one of the oldest criminal organizations of Brazil -, and Família do Norte (FDN), the biggest organization of the Amazon region, with chapters in Peru, Venezuela and Colombia.

Over 900 km of border between the two countries in the dense Amazon jungle, make it extremely difficult to control illegal trafficking, and rivers such as the Putumayo, Rio Caqueta, Vaupes, and Rio Apaporis have become major ways of transit for illegal substances.

As exposed by InsightCrime, while much of the drug flow into Brazil comes from Bolivia and Paraguay, the Colombia connection has become increasingly relevant. This aspect should not be underestimated since in the past few years, Brazilian narco-organizations have become major exporters of drugs to Europe. As explained to Reuters by custom inspector Oswaldo Dias, in less than a decade Brazil’s drug gangs have risen from domestic street sellers to major international players in the drug business, using Santos and other ports to ship narcotics, mainly to Europe, with a value of over $10 billion only for the European market. The phenomenon was confirmed by Laurent Laniel, a senior analyst at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

As to Colombia, the ongoing clashes near the tormented border with Venezuela between ELN and FARC over illegal business control, with the Colombian army having to send reinforcements, surely doesn’t help the central government as it swallows up resources that could be used to control the southern part of the border with Brazil.

Additionally, the Colombian government has to deal with the increasing activity of the Urabeños drug cartel and paramilitary group and specifically with its franchise-like model of trafficking that relies on local gangs with no formal links to the cartel as they are simply sub-contracted to operate for them, in their name. (ITSS exposed the Urabeños drug cartel activity in November 2021).

According to the aforementioned, the drug trafficking flow into Brazil comes in most part from Bolivia and Paraguay. Although ties between Brazilian and Colombian criminal enterprises are not new, they have been growing in the last year and the impacts on the security in the region are starkly. 

In 2017, investigations conducted by the Brazilian Federal Police and the Federal Prosecutor of the Amazon region pointed to a ‘strictly close’ relationship between the FDN and the FARC. The FDN operates primarily in the North region and has control over the main drug flow routes in the triple border region between Brazil, Colombia and Peru. Moreover, according to the reports, the organization used its connections with the Colombian partners to trade drugs and buy heavy weaponry to be used in Brazil. 

However, the FDN is not the only one. Both the CV and the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) – the two biggest criminal enterprises in Brazil - have also been strengthening their ties with Colombian organizations for a number of years. In 2019, the Army Chief of Staff of Colombia reported that the ELN had entered into a partnership with CV with the aim of facilitating drug trafficking (especially cocaine) in the Amazon region, specifically on the border between Leticia (Colombia) and Tabatinga (Brazil), using the Solimões River to provide an outlet for cocaine trafficking. 

The success of these organizations is due to an outdated patrolling system, which, when associated with the complex geography of the region, allows them to easily escape from army platoons and federal police units. Among other things, the partnership with Colombian cartels provided Brazilian organizations with heavy weaponry and high-quality navigation equipment and vessels, often superior to security forces in the region. Currently, the 1,632km Brazil-Colombia route is practically uninhabited and unprotected, a fact that drives its growth every year. A clear example is that in recent years, the volume of drugs seized in the region has grown by no less than 1,324%.

This generates a series of other problems for security in the region, since in addition to the existing alliance between Brazilian and Colombian organizations there is also a war for the control of the main trafficking flows. In 2017, with the help of weapons provided by Colombian organizations, the FDN murdered more than 60 members of rival factions that were at war over the flow of cocaine. In this way, taking into account the delicate situation faced by the security forces in the region, the region remains an eternal "no man's land" in the hands of large drug trafficking organizations.