GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador (AP) — Men walk through a lush plantation between GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador (AP) Ecuador ‘s calm Pacific coast and majestic Andes cut hundreds of clusters of green bananas from plants that groan twice their size.
Workers move the bunches to an assembly line where the bananas are washed, weighed and covered with stickers for European buyers. Company owner Franklin Torres monitors all activity this past morning to make sure the fruit meets international beauty standards and, more importantly, is packaged for shipment without cocaine.
Torres is overly cautious because Ecuador is increasingly at the crossroads of two global trades: bananas and cocaine.
The South American country is the world’s largest exporter of bananas, shipping about 6.5 million metric tons (7.2 tons) annually by sea. It also sits between Peru and Colombia, the world’s largest producers of cocaine, and drug traffickers see containers full of bananas as the perfect vehicle to smuggle their products.
The infiltration of drug traffickers into the industry, which is responsible for about 30% of the world’s bananas, has contributed to unprecedented violence in this once-peaceful country. Armed attacks, murders, kidnappings and extortions have become commonplace. part of daily lifeespecially in the Pacific port city and the banana shipping hub Guayaquil.
About the cocaine trade, 59-year-old dealer Dalia Chang, who has lived in Guayaquil for her life, said: “It’s everyone’s responsibility: the person who carries it, the person who buys it, the person who consumes it.” “They all share responsibility. They destroyed our country,” she said.
Not a major cocaine producer, the country was particularly shaken by a presidential candidate known for his tough stance against organized crime and corruption: Fernando Villavicencio – He was fatally shot at the end of the campaign rally on August 9th. He accused the Ecuadorian Los Choneros gang and its imprisoned leader, with links to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, of threatening him and his campaign team days before the assassination.
Besides its proximity to cocaine production, cartels from Mexico, Colombia and the Balkans have settled in Ecuador because Ecuador uses US dollars and has weak laws and institutions. work.
Officials say Ecuador has also come to the fore in the global cocaine trade after the political changes in Colombia over the past decade. Coca bushes in Colombia are approaching the border with Ecuador as criminal groups dispersed after the 2016 demobilization of the insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by its Spanish acronym FARC.
In 2021, record quantities of cocaine of 2,304 metric tons were produced worldwide, mostly in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. According to the United Nations report, which cited data from the World Customs Organization, nearly a third of the cocaine seized by customs authorities in Western and Central Europe that year came from Ecuador; this was double the amount reported in 2018. Major drug raids have become more frequent, with record-breaking raids carried out in the past month after European authorities inspected containers carrying bananas from Ecuador.
Authorities announced Spain’s largest-ever shipment of cocaine on August 25: 9.5 metric tons were stored in a refrigerated container among cardboard banana boxes from Ecuador. Dutch authorities also had their country’s largest seizure of cocaine (about 8 metric tons) in a container full of Ecuadorian bananas last month. Authorities in Greece and Italy also announced the seizure of cocaine stored in Ecuadorian bananas this year.
Bananas to Europe are boxed in the fields, loaded onto trucks to be taken to huge warehouses in and around Guayaquil, and transported to a port in the region and transferred to sea containers.
The ships then head northeast towards the Panama Canal, cross into the Caribbean Sea, and east across the Atlantic.
Banana growers, exporters, shipping companies, port operators, private security companies, customs agents, agricultural officials, police and buyers provide opportunities that drug traffickers exploit, knowingly or unknowingly.
Some traders set up front companies to imitate legitimate banana exporters, while others bought legitimate businesses, including plantations. They found companies willing to be complicit in the smuggling. They also paid, threatened, or kidnapped truck drivers and other workers to help ship cocaine.
Other smugglers corrupt or intimidate police, customs officers, security guards and port workers into helping or ignoring the tampering of containers at ports.
Drug trafficking has contributed to the number of violent deaths in Ecuador; doubled from 2021 to 2022; 4,600 people died; this was the highest number recorded in a year. The country is on track to break the annual record with 3,568 violent deaths in the first half of 2023.