Port of Manta, Ecuador. Photo CC: Ecuador Presidencia.
It stole its way aboard the fishing boats first, and then came ashore and rotted the heart of this town on the Ecuadoran coast. As Ecuador has become a transshipment point for Colombian and Peruvian cocaine, the Mexican and Colombian trafficking mafias have turned the coastal city of Manta and places like it into something new and dark. From the Dromomanos team and Mexico’s Universal, how Ecuador’s fishing fleet has been taken over by drug pirates:
For years, Marco Sanchez hauled bags full of fish from his colleagues’ boats to the shore at Jaramijo beach, a small settlement next to San Pablo de Manta, or simply Manta, as this town, one of the Ecuador’s most important cities, is commonly known here in the province of Manabi.
Marco cleaned the fish and took them downtown to sell them, until one day they offered him a job as a cook on fishing boat. He was 24 and had a son. He had grown tired of cleaning fish and accepted the job right away, even though his father, a retired sailor, had warned about the dangers of the ocean: the storms, the 18 days or more without touching land, the illnesses, the mechanical problems. And yes, also the drug traffickers.
Over the past years, sailors in Ecuador’s ports have told stories about drug traffickers, pirates with AK-47s who assaulted boats in the middle of the night. They hijacked them to transport drugs and they stole the gas and provisions, and then abandoned them in the middle of nowhere until another fishing boat rescued them. According to these stories, some seduced the fishermen with large sums of money. Those who defied them never returned to land.
Marco didn’t hesitate. He decided to join the crew in which his cousin Jorge worked, fishing for tollo [Sharpfin Houndshark], abundant in the area’s waters. His mother had recently died in Guayaquil, and the money would help him take care of his family. Anything was better than selling the fish his friends brought back from the sea.
Port of Manta, Ecuador. Photo CC: Jlgrandas.
One dark night, a couple of months later, the crew of a small boat, supposedly in distress, came aboard. Seven armed men boarded. Hidden away and without saying a word, Marcho Sanchez watched as they loaded the boat with packages wrapped in plastic and briefcases filled with money.
‘You help us or you stay here,’ one of the men said with a Colombian accent.
The fishermen obeyed the attackers, who approached another boat where they left the merchandise. They carried radios and knew their exact coordinates. Their small boat, allegedly broken down, was abandoned.
Before getting off, the drug traffickers offered the novice cook a deal: ‘Come cook for us. You’ll have more money than you ever imagined.’
Marco Sanchez remained silent. The pirates joked that he probably didn’t cook that well anyway and left. He can’t remember ever being so scared. All he could think was that in any moment they would throw him overboard.
‘One gets involved in those things for money, but there are only two ways out. Either you lose your life or spend it in jail,’ says the former cook, a thin man with a three-day mustache and a slant to his eyes, who retired a couple of years ago and now works on a water taxi that takes people from one boat to another on the shores of Jaramijo.
His cousin Jorge went with the drug traffickers.
When they took control of the sea
Jaramijo smells like fish. The entire town revolves around the sea. The coast is full of tuna fishermen, shrimpers, dinghies and speed boats. Men with weather-beaten skin and calloused hands mend nets and prepare for their next expedition. They say the Ecuadorians in this area preserve the virtues of their ancestors — the Hara-miasus and and Hara-way, Polynesian tribes that settled in this area centuries ago — and navigate without a compass in the open ocean for weeks and return home.
In Jaramijo and neighboring Manta, where most of the country’s principal ports are, as well as in other key points along Ecuador’s coast like Guayaquil, Bolivar and Puerto Esmeraldas, drug traffickers have been operating for several years. Since 2009, US Forward Operating Location (FOL) has been in Manta. Over ten years, FOL carried out 7,726 operations against drug trafficking in 11 countries along the Pacific and sunk up to 46 commercial boats along the Ecuadorian coast for their alleged participation with illicit activity, according the Latin American Association on Human Rights. President Rafael Correa’s administration decided to not renew the agreement that Ecuador had maintained with the United States for the ten years before and closed the base to make the fight against drug trafficking a domestic issue, as in Venezuela and Bolivia, countries which also forgo help from the United States. Around military base the only thing left are a few abandoned restaurants and empty bars.
The military withdrawal brought more drug traffickers, mostly criminal bands from Colombia like Los Rastrojos and the Urabenos, and also cells from Mexican cartels like Sinaloa, Golfo, and the Los Zetas, according to Fernando Carrion, a professor and investigator for FLASCO, a research center that works all over the continent but has its headquarters in Quito. The country that marks the division between the northern and southern hemispheres turned into one of the main routes on the drug map on a continental level. A report from the U.S. State Department indicates that 120 tons of cocaine pass through its borders every year, along with other chemicals used to produce drugs.
Fishermen in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador. Photo CC: Drriss and Marrionn.
‘We have record figure of 270 tons passing through Ecuador, and in the past year 17 laboratories have been found, most of them in Manabi, a region with a lot of vegetation and difficult access from the rough terrain,’ says Daniel Ponton, the coordinator of the Latin American Network on Security and Democracy.
Ecuador suffers from its geography. It is located between two of the largest coca leaf producers, Peru and Colombia, besides sharing a border with Brazil, the second largest cocaine consumer. Its Pacific coast is one of the main drug routes toward Central America and the United States.
The ports are the weakest point for Rafael Correa’s government. Each year, more than 712,000 containers leave the ports, but only a small percentage go through security control. According to the United Nations Container Control Programme (UNDOC), less then two percent (of the containers) sent around the world every year — around 500 million — are inspected.
When FOL was in Manta, there were numerous operations against illegal shipments, but after its exit they declined. The former minister of defense himself, Jose Gallardo, said that the exit of the United States’ base was an error because the amount of aerial and ground control dropped radically.
That’s when the pirates took control of the sea.
‘There were boats that would stop you at sea asking for fish. They would approach with that pretext and board. If they stop you at a certain time late at night it’s because they are drug traffickers,’ says Raul, a fisherman cleaning fish from the previous day’s catch in Jaramijo while his son plays on the prow of the boat.
Just like the other boats, the pirates fly the Ecuadorian flag to disguise their presence. They go from boat to boat, transporting drugs or money, look for provisions and gas. Some steal the motors, which are very valuable in the area. Sometimes, they only need to camouflage themselves amongst other crews to distract the police.
Raul Paladines, a thick, greying Manabi local with a wide nose and mustache, is the owner of Puerto Atun, private territory between Manta and Jaramijo where lobster, sardines and tuna are caught. Sitting at the rooftop bar where he and his friends have parties over his office in the port, he says he had to redouble security on boats to stave off the pirates and contract private agents to keep drugs off his boats. Besides, he installed security cameras to know what happens at sea.
‘Before, when a boat neared to ask for help or fish, it was very common for one to help them out. There was solidarity at sea, but that can’t happen anymore. You don’t know who is approaching and if the boat is ‘carrying’– as they call boats with drugs on board,’ says the businessman from the rooftop on the shores of the sea, from where one of the last whales of the season can be seen. At the end of the pier the remains of a tuna boat that shipwrecked a few months ago are visible.
Paladines maintains that the logs of his ships have registered various attempts by the drug traffickers wanting to intercept his tuna boats: ‘Fortunately, they haven’t been successful.’
Fisherman in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador. Photo CC: Rodrigo Luiz Ciancia.
Last year, (authorities) seized 53 tons of drugs in Ecuador’s ports. Jose Marcos, the head of Manta’s port, says there are ‘signs’ that drugs leave Manabi by sea and are carried north, but there is ‘no proof’ showing that containers leaving his piers are carrying contraband.
‘We know there are dinghies and boats that do that, but we haven’t been able to prove it. Many fishing boats subcontract out as fueling station for vessels that traffic drugs, but there’s a large distance between official knowledge and legal proof.’
Marcos says that some GPS records have been able to detect when dinghies make stops at various points in the sea, which feeds suspicions about floating gas stations.
‘A dinghy with that capacity would wouldn’t even make it to the Galapagos without getting provisions at sea.’
In 2012, the Anti-Narcotics Police found 360 kilos of drugs abandoned on the beach in Punta Blanca. Two weeks later, a shipment of 150 kilos of drugs was found and two people were captured while transporting cocaine in La Tinosa, south of Manta. On more than one occasion fishermen have found bags full of drugs.
This happened on February 12, 2006, when, after a confrontation at sea between alleged drug traffickers and naval authorities, a few men traveling in a speedboat threw overboard packages wrapped in plastic that were not recovered. But days later, a group of fishermen from the fishing village El Matal, also in Manabi, found 20 packages of cocaine. The case, which has repeated on several occasions, inspired the movie The Fisherman, a hit in Ecuadorian film, starring Andres Crespo, which tells the story of Blanquito, a man who after finding one these packages decides to change his life and search for his father by confronting Colombian traffickers.
A Change in Life
The next time Marco Sanchez saw Jorge, months after his fishing boat was hijacked at sea, his cousin was driving a new red car and handing out money to people in Jaramijo. He was dressed well, had remodeled his small home in the town and bragged to everyone that he had escaped poverty and would never have to fish again. He didn’t give the details of his work. He had turned violent and always carried a pistol in his belt.
‘It was remarkable. He wanted to settle everything with money and he didn’t pay attention to us when we told him to get out,’ remembers Marco Sanchez as he tries to start the motor on his boat.
‘And what happened to him?’ we ask Marco.
‘He’s been in jail for a year and a half,’ he replies shortly.
Since 2007, Ecuador’s prisons have begun to fill up with people accused of drug trafficking, many of them in preventive detention. The record number started that year with 18,675 prisoners, according the Organization of American States (OAS), and had risen in October of last year to 24,203, a figure that represents more than double the capacity of Ecuador’s jails. According to authorities, the growth of the prison population was directly related to the rise in confiscation of cocaine.
‘There’s no formal complaint that says fishermen are used by the traffickers, but there is an informal complaint, which comes from intelligence information. I assume the drug traffickers approach the fishermen and offer them money. It’s commonplace, but we don’t have charges filed,’ says Jose Marcos, the head of Manta’s port.
Sometimes, the presence of Mexicans and Colombians in the area is made known. In 2012, Marcos adds, naval authorities found three Mexican suspects at sea while they were doing a patrol looking for a fisherman who had fallen into the ocean. Around that time, they found a shipment of cocaine in the bay at Caraquez.
Fernando Carrion, the researcher at FLASCO, maintains that weak port security and corruption have fomented the installation of multinational organizations in the country. Last May 13, in Manabi, a small airplane registered in Mexico crashed while flying without lights, under the radar, and carrying a briefcase with $1.3 million. A week later, a cocaine lab was found very close to the incident.
‘Ecuador has turned into an international platform for crime. We are no longer a simple warehouse but a transport country, turning us into a platform so cartels can operate from here,’ says an academic who has done studies on the Sinaloa cartel and their way of operating as a multinational companies like Volkswagen, Nike or General Motors.
Wrapping up drugs, not fish
Puerto Lopez, evening catch. Photo CC: Drriss and Marrionn.
On a dusty street in the La Aurora neighborhood, about ten minutes from downtown Manta, a federal intervention and rescue police squad raided a fish processing warehouse. No one knew for sure what was happening. The factory doors were closed and a group of local journalists only got a few takes through a hole in the wall for the evening news: a couple police vehicles, black vests, camouflage uniforms, longs guns. Police were quiet until the following day, but reporters didn’t wait to express their suspicions. The business may have been a front for laundering drug money.
That episode occurred in October of 2012. Just over a month earlier, police registered four other fish processors and a month later, in May of last year, Alpusa — also a fish processor — got a visit at their plant from police for allegedly trafficking drugs: The attorney general’s office had found drugs in a fish container in Guayaquil days earlier and they traced it back to them. It was the third time authorities had cited Alpusa in a short amount of time, the first two times for laundering profits.
According to figures from the Financial Analysis Unit, Ecuador launders $2.2 billion a year, mostly through the real estate sector. The raids on the fish processing plants have turned into a habitual activity in Manta. With 16 companies in the industry, drug trafficking and money laundering have found an ideal disguise in the fishing industry: Large quantities of money are exchanged and illicit profits can be easily hidden amongst the cash flow.
In October 2012, Lucia Fernandez, then the president of the chamber of commerce, elaborated: ‘The problem here is bigger than it seems. When drugs are discovered it’s because someone didn’t get paid enough and they talk.
Sometimes they find things, yes, but not on their own merit.’ Fernandez was nervous during the entire (interview).
The president’s office for the chamber of commerce is in downtown Manta, a cluster of streets on a hill fanned by the breeze off the Pacific. Months after that meeting, in August of the same year, just a few steps from here, police arrested Jorge Dominguez, alias Palustre, the regional head of the well-known Colombian band Los Rastrojos.
Heirs of the Norte del Valle cartel, Los Rastrojos has turned into one of the most powerful organizations in Colombia, above all in the southern Pacific region. In Ecuador, according police intelligence sources cited by the newspaper El Comercio, Palustre had absorbed the principal structures of drug trafficking, had territorial control over illicit activity and laundered money through drug fronts.
Before his arrest, drug-related assassinations, never seen before in Ecaudor, began to rise in Manta. From 2008 to 2011, half of the 1,100 assassinations committed in Manabi happened between Manta, Montecristo and Jaramijo. In 2012, 62 people were killed in (Manta) alone, — more than 20 per 100,000 inhabitants, twice the level the OAS considers epidemic — a trend that would obligate Rafael Correa’s administration to send the army to patrol the area.Besides the criminals from elsewhere, authorities point to a couple of local bands, Los Choneros and Los Queseros, as being responsible for the violence in Manabi. Choneros and queseros have battled since 2005, when the latter assassinated a woman, alias Teniente Espana, the leader of Los Choneros. This band overcame their adversaries and took power in the region. President Correa said Los Choneros were one of the largest organized criminal groups in the history of Manabi.
In the past years, federal police have arrested dozens alleged choneros — the murder rate went down last year in Manabi — but there are voices in the country that question the effectiveness of these arrests. Fernando Carrion of FLASCO says: ‘Even though the police think putting them in jail breaks the groups down, I think putting them in jail strengthens them.’ Carrion refers to examples in Mexico and Colombia, where the prisons, more than break up networks, work in favor of organized crime, reinforcing its ties.
One person we interviewed told us that Los Choneros are nobodies, that they are common criminals, that the people who really pull the strings are others and they use (Los Choneros). Los Choneros are strong, so strong they are involved with the police and the justice department. They control Manabi and Manta, even though they started in Chone, a town close to Manta where they get their name from. Because of drug trafficking and their ties with the Sinaloa cartel they control the port.
The vice minister of national security, Javier Cordova, has affirmed various times in local media outlets that Los Rastrojos, along with the Sinaloa cartel, are the groups with the largest presence in the country, especially since the arrest of Palustre and Cesar Vernaza Quinones, alias El Empresario, who led Los Templados, a group allegedly associated with the recently captured Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman.
Last April 18, Vernaza was arrested along with 13 other people in Cali, Colombia, and charged with drug trafficking, criminal association, homicide and extrusion, after having escaped two months earlier from La Roca maximum security prison. During those months, the Ecuadorian kingpin had posted two YouTube videos, one of which he appears wearing a yellow shirt, a watch and gold chains and earrings, claiming his innocence. He also used social media to threaten the interior minister, Jose Serrano. During his jailbreak nine choneros also participated.
Overwhelmed and frightened by the numbers (of assassins on motorbikes), the city of Manta prohibited last year the number of motorbikes on the streets with more than one person riding them. Local officials even passed out stickers reading ‘Safe Bike’ to try to stop the assassins.
‘We see what’s happening in Mexico and it terrifies us. Our society, lacking values and principals, is easy prey for corruption. It’s a huge concern in the productive sector,’ says Lucia Fernandez.
Ricardo Delgado, director of the local newspaper El Mercurio and president of Manta’s Civic Alliance, also says the assassinations are like a toxic cloud that suddenly hovering over the city: ‘This came up from one day to the next. It wasn’t normal in our city to see violence. Something is going on.’
During the days we were there we heard about several deaths by shooting amounts the residents, like the general secretary for the drivers’ union, Lenin Chiriboga, predecessor to Mr. Delgado at the Civic Alliance. Young Byron Alexander Velez, alias El Mellizo (was shot) with five bullets by two guys on a motorbike. Victor Alejandro Cedeno, 17 years old, (was shot) by two guys on a bike at store. The kid had been trying add some minutes to his cell phone…
The list is long. Assassins even offer their services on the Internet: ‘Are debt collectors bothering you?’ ‘Is someone not paying and then laughing at you?’ ‘Do you want to get rid of the person bothering you?’Fishermen, Ecuador. Photo CC: Alejandro Giacometti.
For many in Manta, a solution to their problems was now just a phone call or email away. The assassinations increased until Rafael Correa’s government was able to lowering the killings last year with the deployment of the military. The city calmed down. But at sea there are still kidnapped fisherman, abandoned boats, and packages wrapped in plastic that fishermen find as they fillet their fish. The neighborhoods still smell like salt and fish, and between one drink and another, people prefer to keep quiet about what happens on the high seas. Out there where the pirates are.