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.
On the north side of the San Miguel River, hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars have gone to fumigating Colombia's coca farms and destroying its cocaine-producing labs.
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."
The sub was seized in what was described in the media as a secret "industrial complex" run by traffickers and large enough to accommodate 50 workers. The complex was hidden in a mangrove swamp not far from the Colombian border near the town of San Lorenzo.
One person was arrested, but Ecuadorean authorities have not released information about the suspect.
Officials reportedly seized the submarine - which Ecuadorean authorities think was destined for Mexico - before it took its maiden voyage. No drugs were found on board.
Larry Karson, a retired U.S. Customs Service agent and criminal justice lecturer at the University of Houston, said the DEA has its work cut out for it.
"There is a long history of U.S. government seizing semi-submersibles," Mr. Karson said, adding that the discovery could prompt customs officials and the U.S. Navy to shift their assets to better patrol U.S. coasts. "This has the potential, based on further DEA intelligence, to change the playing field."
Ecuador's ambassador to the United States, Luis Benigno Gallegos, told The Washington Times that he would like Colombia to take a stronger role in controlling drugs and crime on its side of the border.
Mr. Gallegos insisted that Ecuador, which has built up its military presence in the border area, faces the herculean task of ridding itself of drug networks made powerful by massive demand for cocaine in Europe and the United States.
"My principal concern is how we deal with this problem in the future," Mr. Gallegos said. "I certainly don't see it going away in 10 or 15 years. And I don't see anything ever improving until the U.S. does something about its drug consumption."
Many people in ramshackle border villages say the drug war is unwinnable, that transit routes and cocaine labs uncovered by police will - like bulges in a squeezed balloon - simply reappear elsewhere in this vast jungle.
Complicating matters, Ecuador supplies gasoline and petroleum ether, a byproduct of oil-drilling operations in northern Ecuador, to clandestine drug labs.
"Ecuador is a major transit country for illicit drugs trafficked from Colombia and Peru to the United States, as well as a source of chemical precursors diverted for illicit narcotics manufacturing," according to the 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, issued by the U.S. State Department.
Further complicating the situation, this area's grinding poverty and joblessness ensure that drug networks have a constant supply of peasant workers and "mules" for transporting illegal products.
A farmer earning $1 a day on a farm plot, for example, can earn more than $1,000 for delivering a 50-gallon drum of gasoline to a clandestine cocaine lab, according to interviews with locals.
Seated in a tiny restaurant in the border town of Puerto Nuevo, where Ecuadorean military officials say leftist guerrillas from Colombia's civil war come to rest and find supplies, longtime resident Octavio Catano reflected on what he describes as a hopeless situation.
"How can you change things when the people have no alternatives?" said Mr. Catano, director of the Puerto Nuevo Art and Culture House. "They have to feed their families. What would you do?"
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.