Ecuador, under the clutches of the Mexican cartels 

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There is no country in the world that handles such a high proportion of tons of cocaine per inhabitant as Ecuador. The South American country, hinge between the two major coca leaf producers in South America and the world, Colombia and Peru, has become in the last 15 years a logistics platform for large transnational crime organizations. Among them, the Sinaloa Cartel stands out, with nearly half a century of experience in introducing drugs to the great global consumer market, the United States. 

The famous American brand of drug trafficking appears these days linked to the murder of the candidate for the presidency of Ecuador, Fernando Villavicencio. Attacked with bullets on Wednesday, Villavicencio had denounced in recent days the threats and intimidation against himself and his team, from the Los Choneros criminal gang, an alleged ally of those from Sinaloa for years. Villavicencio accused the alleged leader of the gang, alias Fito, of sending him threatening messages. Apparently, Fito did not like that the candidate spoke about him to the press, as an example of the crime and corruption that grip the country. 

Villavicencio died of the lead blows that same Wednesday. Given the above, his attack seemed to point directly to Los Choneros, a group of criminals born on the Ecuadorian north coast before the turn of the century. Hours later, however, a group of hooded men dressed in black published a video claiming responsibility for the attack. In the video, one of them said that they were part of the Los Lobos criminal group, a splinter of Los Choneros, and accused Villavicencio of not complying with some type of agreement. 

Things got even more complicated this Thursday, when another group of men, these with their faces uncovered and dressed in white, published a video calling themselves true members of the “GDO [organized crime group] Los Lobos”, rejecting all involvement in the assassination of the candidate. The authorship or not of Los Lobos has allowed speculation at length about the international relations of the group, specifically its alleged links with the emerging brand of Mexican crime, the Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel (CJNG), alleged rivals of Sinaloa.  

Sinaloa or Jalisco, that is the question. Beyond names and brands, their presence in the equation requires an understanding of their role in local crime dynamics. How do alleged transnational criminal alliances influence the workings of local crime? In an interview with an Ecuadorian media outlet a month and a half ago, the academic Fernando Carrión spoke of a holding logic. Thus, Mexican criminal groups would use gangs like Los Choneros and Los Lobos to transport cocaine, import materials for its production, and so on. 

They are not minor occupations. Carrión explained that Ecuador distributes between 700 and 800 tons of cocaine each year. Most of it goes north, towards the United States, another part goes to Brazil, the world’s second largest consumer of cocaine and derivatives, and another part stays in place, feeding increasingly important local markets, a phenomenon common to the rest from Latin America. Governments consign part too. Only in 2021 there were 210 tons, according to local authorities. 

Daniel Pontón, dean of the School of Security and Defense of the Institute of Higher National Studies of Ecuador, explains that the presence of Mexican organizations in the country dates back to the early years of the 2000s. “In recent years, in some posters have appeared in prisons that also mention the CJNG,” he adds. On the Mexican influence, the expert imagines a scheme of “contacts”, far from a usual business logic. “Organized crime does not function as a private company, they are contacts and franchises, letterheads that people here use based on the contacts they establish, and that guarantee security for the management of certain drug trafficking routes,” he points out.  

The Mexican academic Cecilia Farfán-Méndez assumes that Mexican criminal groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel manage international drug trafficking networks, but she is somewhat cautious when establishing their forms, their dynamics. “There is always this discussion of which is the most powerful criminal group, along with its international expansion,” she explains. “But the reality is that it is very difficult to have robust information and concrete data on the expansion of these groups,” she adds.  

Ponton formulates a similar thesis. “Ecuador’s problem of violence is endogenous, ours. Here we have experienced a process of and complexity of the very particular violence. Sure, it is largely financed by international organized crime. But I don’t know to what extent the Mexican cartels pull the strings of what happens here, ”he points out. “The truth is that there is little information. A lot of journalistic investigation has been done, but neither the academy nor the institutions have a clear map of what we have”. 

“The main problem,” argues Farfán-Méndez, “is that given the number of intermediaries that participate in the different illicit economies, what makes someone an affiliate of an organization like the Sinaloa Cartel?” he argues. Farfán-Méndez, who directs the Center for Studies on US-Mexico Relations at the University of California, San Diego, and has studied the business model of the Sinaloa cartel, points out that much of the time, information on the size of the groups comes from interested parties, such as the DEA. In July, the United States anti-drug agency estimated that the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels number around 45,000 members. 

The shape and interests of the international chapters of Mexican criminal organizations point to the heart of the matter. How much are they to blame for the increase in homicidal violence in Ecuador? And what about the prison violence, which in the last four years has left hundreds of deaths in the country? These are questions that lead to the attack against Villavicencio. Beyond its direct implication, criminal ways in the north of the continent could be permeating practices in the south. 

Farfán-Méndez here invokes Los Zetas, one of the best-known criminal brands in the first decade of the century. “The Zetas were the favorite group of the press, they talked about something sophisticated, big, with the capacity to fire. And then in many places they were talking about Los Zetas are coming. If you are a criminal, you have an incentive to say that you belong to a group of certain renown. It may help you. In other words, it is not that there are no relationships, but there are incentives to use brands that can help you extract income or whatever you are looking for”. 

  Source: El Pais