Guayaquil, Ecuador — Men traverse a lush plantation between Ecuador’s gentle Pacific coast and its majestic Andes, cutting hundreds of bunches of green bananas from groaning plants twice as tall.
Workers transport the bunches to an assembly line, where the bananas are washed, weighed and covered with stickers for European buyers. Owner Franklin Torres is monitoring all activity this morning to ensure the fruit meets international beauty standards – and, more importantly, is packaged for cocaine-free shipping.
Torres is hypervigilant as Ecuador increasingly finds itself at the confluence of two global trades: bananas and cocaine.
The South American country is the world’s largest exporter of bananas, shipping around 6.5 million tonnes (7.2 tons) annually by sea. The country is also wedged between the world’s largest cocaine producers, Peru and Colombia, and drug traffickers find containers full of bananas the perfect vehicle to smuggle their product.
The infiltration of drug traffickers into the industry that produces around 30% of the world’s banana production has contributed to unprecedented violence in this once peaceful country. Shootings, homicides, kidnappings and extortion have become part of everyday life, especially in Guayaquil, a Pacific port city and hub for banana shipping.
“It’s everyone’s responsibility: the one who transports it, the one who buys it, the one who uses it,” saleswoman Dalia Chang, 59, a longtime resident of Guayaquil, said of the cocaine trade. “They all share the responsibility. They ruined our country.
The country, which is not a major cocaine producer, was particularly shaken when a presidential candidate known for his tough stance on organized crime and corruption – Fernado Villavicencio – was fatally shot in the end of a campaign rally on August 9. He had accused the Ecuadorian gang Los Choneros and its imprisoned leader, whom he linked 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 moved into Ecuador because the country uses the US dollar and has weak laws and institutions, as well as a network of gangs. long-established, like Los Choneros, eager for work.
Authorities say Ecuador has also gained prominence in the global cocaine trade after political changes in Colombia over the past decade. The coca bush fields in Colombia have moved closer to the border with Ecuador due to the disbanding of criminal groups following the 2016 demobilization of the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by their Spanish acronym FARC.
A record 2,304 tons of cocaine were manufactured in 2021 worldwide, mainly in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. That year, almost a third of the cocaine seized by customs authorities in Western and Central Europe came from Ecuador, double the amount reported in 2018, according to a United Nations report citing data from the United Nations. ‘World Customs Organization. Large drug seizures have become more frequent and in the past month European authorities have made record seizures after inspecting containers carrying bananas from Ecuador.
The authorities announced on August 25 the largest collection of cocaine ever carried out in Spain: 9.5 tons hidden in boxes of bananas from Ecuador in a refrigerated container. Dutch authorities also last month made the country’s largest-ever cocaine seizure – nearly 8 tonnes – from a container of Ecuadorian bananas. Greek and Italian authorities also announced seizures of cocaine hidden in Ecuadorian bananas this year.
Bananas destined for Europe are crated on plantations, loaded onto trucks that take them to huge warehouses in and around Guayaquil, and transferred to shipping containers on their way to a port in the region.
Then the ships head northeast to the Panama Canal, cross the Caribbean Sea, and cross the Atlantic to the east.
Consciously or not, banana growers, exporters, shipping companies, port operators, private security companies, customs agents, agricultural officials, police and buyers provide opportunities that drug traffickers have exploited.
Some traffickers have set up shell companies to imitate legitimate banana exporters, while others have acquired legitimate businesses, including plantations. They found companies willing to be complicit in the traffic. They also paid off, threatened or kidnapped truck drivers and other workers to help move cocaine on shipments.
Other smugglers bribed or intimidated police, customs officers, security guards and port workers to help them tamper with containers at ports, or ignore them.
Drug trafficking has contributed to Ecuador’s violent death toll, which doubled between 2021 and 2022, with 4,600 killed, the highest number on record in a year. The country is on track to beat the annual record again, with 3,568 violent deaths recorded in the first half of 2023.
In Guayaquil, where shipping containers are part of the landscape, people today live in fear. Pedestrians no longer dare to take their phones out of their pockets. Convenience stores are equipped with floor-to-ceiling metal bars that prevent customers from entering from the sidewalk. Restaurants that have survived the pandemic are closing early.
Along with the rise in homicides, the amount of cocaine seized at ports across the country has also increased, reaching 77.4 tons last year. This is more than three times the amount seized in 2020.
National Police General Pablo Ramírez, Ecuador’s national director of drug investigations, attributed the change to an increase in smuggling, not better repression.
Police data also shows that of last year’s total, a record 47.5 tonnes of cocaine were found in banana shipments, even as fruit exports fell 6.4% from compared to 2021.
No more than 30% of containers are currently inspected in Ecuadorian ports, a process carried out manually or with drug-sniffing dogs. President Guillermo Lasso’s government says it wants to use scanners on entire containers. Twelve of those machines were supposed to be working already, but Ramírez said that hasn’t happened yet.
Ramírez said he expects all ports to have operational scanners by mid-2024. He said two ports had trialed the scanners to help with internal procedures and train people who will work with the machines.
The operator of Guayaquil’s largest port, Contecon Guayaquil SA, refused Associated Press requests for maintenance and access to the port to see existing security procedures. In response to written questions about these measures, spokeswoman Alexandra Pacheco said in a statement that the operator had reached an agreement with the national police in 2022 to, among other things, “strengthen operations in the port”. She added that the operator plans to spend around $15 million on scanners.
José Hidalgo, executive director of the Association of Banana Exporters of Ecuador, said the industry is more exposed to traffic than other product exports due to the volume of containers it uses.
“It’s thanks to bananas that there are so many ports,” Hidalgo said. “It opens up routes to other export products.”
He explained that exporters spend about $100 million a year on security measures, which include surveillance cameras in the plantations, GPS monitoring of trucks and identification of land routes that require police patrols to ward off traffickers. criminals.
Nevertheless, some exporters have been accused of being complicit or directly involved in cocaine trafficking.
Torres, the owner of the plantation, would like to see this type of exporter expelled from the sector. But there are no regulations that can be used to revoke a company’s banana export license when the activity is repeatedly linked to drug trafficking.
“It bothers me so much,” Torres said. “My collaborators work with bananas, they don’t work with drugs. It is a flagship product, the best in the world, and to see it marred in this way is a shame.”