SAN MIGUEL RIVER, Ecuador | Some say it is a river with eyes: A swimming child bolts from the water and disappears into the jungle. A boatman revs his outboard engine. A chain saw grinds to an ear-splitting whine - all potential warnings of illegally armed groups operating in this dense jungle, where a sizable portion of the world’s cocaine is produced and shipped.
But it is the south side, in Ecuador, that has escaped the calamity of large-scale coca production only to emerge as a major cocaine-shipping hub, where drug traffickers have taken their billion-dollar smuggling operations to new technological heights.
According to the U.N. World Drug Report 2010, drug traffickers are turning Ecuador into a key transit point for cocaine, largely because the Colombian government has taken greater control of its territory.
In 2009, according to U.S. State Department statistics, anti-drug police in Ecuador uncovered only seven cocaine laboratories, while drug seizures - 43.5 metric tons for the year - rose 98 percent over 2008 levels.
Complicating matters, criminal gangs that feed off the cocaine trade have brought instability and insecurity to peasants living in this remote area of muddy rivers, swamps and impenetrable vegetation. A U.N. report has described the provinces of northern Ecuador as a place of mass killings and insecurity.
“Ecuador is really a victim of geography,” said Jay Bergman, Andean regional director for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “It is sandwiched between the two largest cocaine-source countries in the world: Peru and Colombia.”
The U.S. government spent nearly $8 million in 2009 to train and equip Ecuadorean police, military and judiciary members to fight criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking, said Wes Carrington, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Quito, Ecuador. An additional $1.7 million was spent to aid the Ecuadorean National Police and to share information to fight drug-trafficking networks.
Nixon Torres, a spokesman for the Ecuadorean Ministry of National Defense, referred questions to the National Police, which did not provide information by press time.
Lured by an estimated $70 billion cocaine market in the United States alone, traffickers constantly are looking for ways to skirt police and military units. Mr. Bergman said officials recently quarantined a commercial shipment of 30 tons of molasses that contained 3 tons of cocaine dissolved within it.
“The drug traffickers are very clever and very rich,” said Eugenio Valdez, a former Ecuadorean soldier from the jungle supply town of Lago Agrio in northern Ecuador. “No matter what the military does, it will not stop them. There is too much money involved.”
The scope of the problem hit home recently when authorities here seized a submarine capable of carrying tons of cocaine beneath the ocean’s surface.
On July 2, Ecuadorean military forces and counternarcotics police working with the DEA seized the vessel in a shallow river inlet near the Colombian border.
The 98-foot-long, diesel-powered submarine - complete with a conning tower, an air-conditioning system, a periscope and camouflage paint - was en route to the Pacific Ocean, officials said. The sub can stay below the surface for 10 days, house a crew of six and transport 10 to 15 tons of cocaine, said officials quoted in Ecuadorean media.
It is the first seizure of what the DEA describes as “a clandestinely constructed, fully operational submarine built to facilitate transoceanicdrug trafficking.”