Sandwiched between the two largest producers of cocaine in the world, the country is fighting a hard battle against narcotrafficking.
in November 2017, the Mexican newspaper El Universal cited unnamed government sources to claim that Mexican drug cartels were operating in Ecuador, as well as 50 other countries on ve
continents. While Ecuadorean authorities denied the claim, the story highlighted the country’s vulnerable position, between the world’s two largest cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru, complicated by its strategic location on the Pacific, making its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone a logical transit area for drug traffickers and other illicit maritime
flows to North America and Asia. Ecuador’s border with Colombia has long been a challenge, with the Colombian civil war displacing roughly 250,000 Colombians into the country, as well as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC in Spanish) guerillas crossing into Ecuador to escape the pressure from the Colombian military campaign against them, generating particular concern over the presence of the FARC in the provinces of Carchi, Esmeraldas, and Sucumbios. Indeed, Ecuadoreans have long viewed their neighbor to the north as a significant driver of organized criminal activities in their country.
SEMI-SUBMERSIBLES IN ECUADOR
With respect to narcotracking, by late 2016, seven narco-submarines had been discovered in Ecuadorean territory, including two semi-submersibles in Isla Puná, in the province of Guayas, transporting cocaine to Peru, and five submersibles in Esmeraldas, as well as towed torpedoes and buoys with geolocation capabilities for moving drugs, allowing the narcotraffickers to simply cut the line if discovered and return later for the contraband. In December 2017, the Ecuadorean Navy seized 1.3 tons of drugs in Pacific Ocean waters under its jurisdiction, illustrating the volume of drugs moving through both the country and its territorial waters. Reflecting the volume and the efforts of Ecuadorean authorities, the government reported that in the first half
of 2017, drug seizures in the country were up 23 percent from the corresponding level in 2016. Analysts worry that improvements to the Trans-Amazonian Highway connecting Peru and Colombia through Ecuador, part of the nation’s notably good investment in road infrastructure, may exacerbate contraband flows through the country via overland routes as well.
GUERILLAS AND NARCOTRAFFICKING
In the years following the 1995 Cenepa War, and in reaction to the challenges posed by guerillas and narcotrafficking in Colombia, Ecuador has gradually redeployed forces from the south to the north of the country. The country’s First joint task force, established in 2009, was deployed to secure the Colombian border, and an estimated 8,000 military personnel are deployed there today, including the 19th Brigade in Sucumbíos, the 39th Brigade in Esmeraldas, and the Northern Naval Operations Command. Lago Agrio, Ecuador’s forward operating military base for air operations, is located near the Colombian border, and has been strengthened in recent years to include the expanded aerial surveillance operations. The country has also dedicated an Air Wing with Brazilian-made Super Tucano Fighters to the area. While peace accords between the Colombian government and the FARC have spawned hopes that Ecuador could reduce spending on border security, in reality, the demobilization of the FARC, in combination with a signicant expansion of coca growing in Colombia has prompted concern of increased spillover
of criminal activity to the Ecuadorean side of the border. Similarly, Ecuador’s hosting of peace talks between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN in Spanish) demonstrate that both sides view Ecuador as an acceptable interlocutor. ELN guerillas continue to operate and conduct money-raising illicit activities near Ecuador’s border in the Colombian
department of Nariño. Not all of Ecuador’s security challenges have been in the north of the country. Narco airstrips have been discovered on the central coast, including one in the
province of Los Rios. Of the previously mentioned narco-submarines, two were discovered on the southern portion of Ecuador’s coast, in Isla Puná, near Peru.
Beyond narcotra Ficking, Ecuador’s security is challenged by a range of other criminal activities, including illegal Fishing and illegal mining. The August 2017 detection of a Chinese Fishing vessel in the Galapagos Marine Reserve with 300 tons of protected sea creatures in its hold highlighted the extent to which foreign vessels regularly violate such valuable protected areas, far from the nation’s shore (where it is dificult for the country’s Navy and Coast Guard to maintain a presence). Similarly, the impact of illegal mining was highlighted by the case of Zaruma, in El Oro province, where illegal mining under the town caused the formation of a sinkhole in February 2017 that almost swallowed the local school. In addition, Ecuador’s use of the U.S. dollar has made it attractive as a center for money laundering, as illustrated by the investigation of Banco Territorial for such activities in 2013. In response to such challenges, Ecuador’s military and police are capable and professional. Indeed, their preparation and ability to coordinate were refected in their response to the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that killed over 650 people and devastated Manabí province in April 2016. Nonetheless, continued underfunding of areas such as military maintenance create challenges in meeting operational demands.
INTEGRAL SECURITY PLAN
At the strategic level, the Ministry of Security Coordination has developed an interagency integral security plan to confront the aforementioned security challenges, consistent within the framework of the 2017-2021 National Development Plan. Within this plan, the role of the military refects a modification to the Ecuadorean constitution which permits the Armed Forces a limited role in internal security affairs, such as manning border checkpoints. While the Ecuadorean police and military do not generally conduct joint operations, they do train together and coordinate their activities, especially in border units. Although Ecuador’s military compares favorably to its peers in the region in professionalism, its ability to address the previously discussed serious challenges have been impaired by sustained low spending on areas such as maintenance, as well as recent dramatic across-the-board defense budget cuts, including a 17.8 percent reduction in 2016, forced by a drop in government revenue from low international oil prices. Compounding the institutional impacts of budget cuts, the Ecuadorean Army is being reduced from roughly 40,000 to 25,000 troops, taking a significant toll on military institutions and promotions. Ecuador’s Air Force bought used Cheetah Fighters from South Africa, and its six operational Bell 206 helicopters, suffer from limited availability. The contract for seven DHRUV light helicopters from the Indian company Hindustan was cancelled after four crashed. The government has indicated that replacements for the lost helicopters would arrive in 2018. Similarly, a contract for radars from the Chinese firm CEIEC was cancelled following a dispute over their functionality, and the replacement Indra radars have not yet been acquired. Budget constraints have also delayed the Ecuadorean government’s progress in expanding the capabilities of its Pacific coast facility at Manta as its main base for counternarcotics operations.
NEW MILITARY EQUIPMENT
With respect to ground forces, a plan to replace Ecuador’s old AMX-13 light tanks with used Leopard II main battle tanks never came to fruition. The Ecuadorean Armed Forces did, however, purchased 107 HMMWVs from the U.S. in 2013. The Ecuadorean Navy has fared somewhat better than the other services, including acquiring six UAVs for maritime patrol, upgrading two corvettes, purchasing a Damen Stan Patrol vessel, and acquiring two used Leander-class frigates from Chile to supplement their Fleet of even older frigates of the same class. While Ecuador’s cessation of cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) gained local headlines, it has quietly and efectively cooperated with both of its neighbors against organized crime and other security challenges. In February 2017, the presidents and cabinets of Ecuador and Colombia held a binational cabinet meeting, producing a joint operating plan, to include coordinated activities to improve conditions and control of the border area, including illegal mining activities. They engaged in three binational civil actions over the course of 2017, and in December, the ministers of defense of the two countries held a meeting in Bogotá to discuss such shared security issues. Other examples include the joint exercise “Andes” between the Ecuadorean and Colombian Air Forces (featuring drug smuggling scenarios), the “Esperanza” exercises between the Ecuadorean and Peruvian Air Forces, and military coordination committees with both Peru and Colombia. From the perspective of the United States, there are multiple areas to potentially help Ecuador in its struggle against the nation’s security challenges, from possible maintenance support for its U.S. helicopters and HMMWVs, to expanded training and intelligence assistance against organized crime groups, and collaboration with respect to drug transits and other illegal activities on Ecuador’s Pacific coast. In the near term, such collaboration will require a patient, respectful rebuilding of the U.S.-Ecuador relationship