When the Antinarcotics Police broke into a bottled water business in Los Vergeles, north of Guayaquil, on Friday night, the agents couldn’t imagine that hidden in the back of an office, they would find “a gold mine,” of drugs as described by one of the uniformed men who participated in the operation.
It was not a random action, there was planning. Tannya Varela, general commander of the Police, said that the operation was carried out after investigations into a narco-criminal network dismantled on July 23rd, in the same sector. On that occasion, anti-narcotics agents seized 515 kilos of drugs and arrested five people who are currently serving preventive detention. This time there were two detainees.
But this was not just any find: in total 9.5 tons of cocaine were seized, an amount that in the international market is valued at $450 million. That is why “this is a historical seizure,” said the Minister of Government, Alexandra Vela, who went to the place where 157 packages with 60 blocks each were found along with 10 long rifles “with the power to destroy an armored vehicle” and 2,855 rounds of ammunition.
Colonel Mario Pazmiño, former Army Intelligence Chief and National Security and Defense analyst, said his experience tells him that the Police agents “fell into a collection center,” and he that the Los Vergeles location, celebrated by the Police as a “historic seizure,” is actually a small site. “It is known that there are places where up to 30 tons are stored.”
Given the current conditions of vulnerability of the National Defense system, “it would not be unusual to find other centers with a greater quantity of drugs,” he said.
He added that it is necessary to install radar stations for the surveillance of the air and maritime space, since the stash that arrives in Ecuador from Colombia leaves through these routes. “As much as 37.5% of the drug produced there comes from here.”
Geovanny Espinel, General Commander of the Ecuadorian Air Force (FAE), who on Friday went to Manta to explain the need to put in radar for drug control in Manabí, said that during 2020, these illegal activities generated 144 homicides and that in 2021 there are already 336 violent deaths related to internal drug trafficking and consumption.
According to Pazmiño, the collection centers, where drugs from different laboratories are stored, are always close to “international distribution platforms,” which are ports and airports where cargo is contaminated or also by clandestine runways and boats along of the coastal profile.
“A Joint Anti-Narcotics Task Force has to be formed, because this has already overflowed,” suggested the official who has been warning about the advance of drug trafficking organizations. “The Police no longer have the operational capacity; they cannot continue to act alone.”
Who should form this joint task force?
A joint task force must consist of the three branches of the Armed Forces, the Police and the Prosecutor’s Office, accompanied by a special intelligence system, said Pazmiño. He added that reforms to the Comprehensive Organic Criminal Code (COIP) must be added as well.
“We are not yet like in Mexico, where drug trafficking has contaminated even the Public Force, and we have time to prevent that from happening.”
Pazmiño does not want what happened last April to happen again, when the authorities released two pilots of planes from Mexico who landed in the fields of a sugar factory in Milagro. They came to collect drugs, the police said, but they could not be connected with evidence. They were free from any charges, although they entered the country illegally, avoiding the radar systems.
Julio César Cueva, a criminal lawyer, explained that although officials know that these foreigners come to pick up drugs, in law it does not matter what is suspected or what is known, but what can be proven.
“It would be necessary to see if the people who arrive in the planes committed other crimes. If the license plate is original, if it had a flight plan, if it did not have permission to enter the airspace, if the pilot has the papers in order, it would be necessary to see if there are related crimes such as money laundering or if there was fuel that had not been legally purchased.”
Violating the airspace should be punished with the utmost rigor, suggested Pazmiño.
In the case of Milagro, the Prosecutor’s Office tried to prosecute the pilot arrested in “flagrante delicto” for hydrocarbon trafficking, however, a judge from that canton confirmed the innocence of the foreigner, as he said that the prosecutor was negligent when raising the accusation. According to him, he should accuse him as an accessory to the crime, not as an author, because he was not there to sell the fuel but to buy it.
Colonel Érick Benites, Deputy Chief of Anti-narcotics, has recognized that although the Air Force and the Police are actively looking for these kinds of operations, they do not have the capacity to locate a plane immediately and on many occasions when they arrive at the site where it landed, the organization has already left with the evidence.
Criminal lawyers point out that in these cases there is no causal link (to prove that the drugs are theirs), and that it is different if there is a previous investigation and there is already evidence.
Cueva said that the problem is in the haste of the authorities. “We would have to wait for them to deliver the drugs, to refuel and stop them there.”
That is why Pazmiño suggested a joint task force, so that all those involved, with knowledge of the law, carry out strategic actions and those involved do not go unpunished.
“The Army must exercise control over the land borders; the Air Force must have a demolition law and have better radar equipment for the control of clandestine ships; and the Navy, the same, in the case of small vessels that leave the coasts to supply large ships on the high seas.”
Pazmiño says that in the meantime, special attention needs to be paid to “the coves that are hidden in plain sight” and describes their characteristics: they are businesses that allow people and vehicles to enter and leave without raising suspicion. They are simple facades, the real, illegal business is inside, as the Police discovered in the water bottling plant in Los Vergeles.