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Revealing the Foreign Participants on Ecuador’s Criminal Chessboard

Sandwiched between the world’s top cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has become a hub and base for several transnational criminal networks. Its long coastline and large container ports make it a perfect launch pad for drug shipments heading to the United States and Europe. Colombian, Mexican, and Balkan drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) all have an established presence in the country.

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In January, Ecuador started a campaign against 22 local drug gangs, labeling them as terrorist groups and detaining over 11,000 individuals. However, some of the most significant hits have been against international networks.

In February, a combined operation between Spain and Ecuador dismantled a drug trafficking network led by Albanians, shortly after Ecuadorian police captured a major Colombian guerrilla leader in Imbabura province. arrested Ecuadorian authorities arrested a notable Colombian guerrilla leader in Imbabura province.

GameChangers 2023: Ecuador Loses Its Grip on Crime

Located between the top cocaine producers Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has turned into a hub and operating base for various international criminal networks. Its extensive coastline and large container ports make it an ideal starting point for drug shipments to the United States and Europe. Colombian, Mexican, and Balkan drug trafficking organizations all have an established presence in the country.

These international drug trafficking organizations send intermediaries to sub-contract and coordinate cocaine shipments, but there is little proof that they directly disrupt Ecuadorian local gang dynamics or conflicts.

Their major impact is financial. By paying off Ecuadorian transport groups, distribution networks, criminal crews, hired killers, and corrupt officials, foreign groups have facilitated the development of advanced and influential local networks in Ecuador and have contributed to weakening institutions.

Below, InSight Crime outlines these networks.

Colombian Armed Groups

Colombian criminal groups, mainly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), established a presence in Ecuador during the 1990s, building extensive networks for trafficking drugs, weapons, and supplies in the border areas. FARCThe Ecuadorian provinces of Esmeraldas, Carchi, and Sucumbíos share borders with the Colombian departments of Putumayo and Nariño. Ecuador’s proximity to these important coca cultivation and cocaine production areas made it an attractive refuge for the FARC, who capitalized on the often easily crossed border to establish base camps and drug routes on the Ecuadorian side while evading the Colombian armed forces.

Following the FARC's demobilization in 2016, the influence of Colombian criminal groups in Ecuador has declined, with no single criminal group controlling the cross-border drug trade. However, in Sucumbíos and Esmeraldas, FARC dissidents and other organized crime syndicates that previously collaborated with the guerrillas have taken over where the FARC left off.

Currently, at least three Colombian groups are active on both sides of the border: the Border Command (Los Comandos de la Frontera), Oliver Sinisterra Front (Frente Oliver Sinisterra – FOS), and the Urías Rondón front. These groups, collectively known as the ex-FARC mafia, oversee the main points for trafficking cocaine into Ecuador. Their influence also extends into the border provinces.

As Colombian groups are the main cocaine providers for international buyers, they often have direct ties with foreign criminal groups. For instance, the FOS supplies cocaine to the CDFSinaloa Cartel (Cartel de Sinaloa), while the Urías Rondón front sends cocaine to the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación –), according to a

from the Colombian and Ecuadorian Ombudsman offices. Colombian groups subcontract Ecuadorian groups to store, transport, and ship the cocaine to these international partners. Recently, Ecuadorian authorities claimed the FOS works with the Tiguerones, while the Urías Rondón front allies itself with the to an investigation by Colombian newspaper “El Tiempo.” But longstanding partnerships between Colombian and Ecuadorian criminal groups have yet to emerge. Despite these logistical alliances with Ecuadorian groups, some Colombian groups have expanded their presence deeper into Ecuador, indicating a lack of trust in Ecuadorian groups to oversee drug shipments effectively. Ecuadorian authorities allege that they have and intimidated Ecuadorian towns near the border and set up CJNGin Ecuadorian territory. report Since August 2023, Ecuadorian authorities have, on at least three separate occasions,

alleged members of the FOS in Esmeraldas, Choneros, according the group’s leader Carlos Arturo Landázuri Cortés, alias “El Gringo,” and

third-in-command attacked , Janer Cortés Ortiz, alias “Guasón.” base camps Additionally, Ecuadorian authorities have

small-scale coca cultivation and cocaine processing facilities in the border areas of Carchi and Sucumbíos as recently as August 2023. Colombian criminal groups have taken advantage of the limited state presence and used these small-scale coca enclaves for laboratories to experiment with crystallization and refining cocaine hydrochloride in Ecuadorian territory, according to a captured from the Ecuadorian Organized Crime Observatory (Observatorio Ecuatoriano de Crimen Organizado – OECO). including The presence of cheap precursor chemicals for cocaine production in provinces like Sucumbíos has also contributed to this dynamic, the OECO report added. Still, the scale of cultivation and production in Ecuador is nowhere near those of Putumayo and Nariño, two of Colombia’s largest coca production hubs.Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations

In the past, the Mexicans — who are the main buyers of cocaine trafficked to the United States — set up and maintained a permanent presence in Ecuador, running major operations with substantial commercial and trafficking infrastructure. But today their operations are more agile, relying on the short-term presence of coordinators. discovered Ecuadorian authorities were able to report just such a coordinator working for the Sinaloa Cartel in November 2021.

At the time of his arrest, Brayan Rodríguez

already faced

drug trafficking and money laundering charges in the United States. He entered the country to coordinate with in-country groups providing transport, security, and logistics services, and to personally oversee a large shipment of cocaine scheduled for December of that year, police

Ecuadorian news media.

Today, the Sinaloa Cartel relies on such representatives, sent from Mexico for a short, fixed period, to make deals with Colombian suppliers and Ecuadorian transporters, ensure the deals are kept, and deliver in-cash payments brought in from Mexico. But this was not always the case. detain For many years, the Sinaloa Cartel had a large transport system in the country with Colombian agents and Ecuadorian carriers.

working directly for the Cartel’s leaders full-time. However, as these fixed individuals became bigger targets for Ecuador’s security forces, the Sinaloa Cartel changed its approach. told Today, the group uses different coordinators who collaborate with various gangs that specialize in different transport methods such as secret drug flights, fast boats, and contaminated containers on large cargo ships.

“It is a type of outsourcing,” said Ecuadorian security expert Maria Fernanda Revelo to InSight Crime.

This system of changing representatives and short-term alliances makes Sinaloa’s operations a dynamic target that is hard to track or dismantle. Since the beginning of the decade, the Sinaloa Cartel’s main rival, the CJNG, has also started operating in Ecuador. Like the Sinaloa Cartel, its presence appears to be focused in coastal provinces like Manabi and Santa Elena, but less is known about the group’s modus operandi because they are relatively new.

Around the same time as the CJNG's arrival, some of Ecuador’s smaller gangs, including the Chone Killers, the Tiguerones, and the Lobos, broke ties with the Choneros and formed an alliance against them, which they called “Nueva Generación,” reportedly in honor of their ties to the CJNG. This has been considered as evidence that Mexican groups are fighting a proxy war in Ecuador. However, these alliances are unstable and seem more driven by internal competition for routes, networks, and recognition, rather than external forces. The Nueva Generación alliance fell apart in the second half of 2023 with the Tiguerones and Chone Killers re-aligning themselves with the Choneros, according to OECO coordinator Renato Rivera-Rhon.Albanian Networks

Albanian networks are another major player in Ecuador and use the country as a base for their Latin American operations. Although often known as the “Albanian Mafia,” these networks consist of decentralized family clans and individuals whose relationships with each other and with Ecuadorian groups are flexible.

They have been present in Ecuador since at least 2009 when an Albanian citizen was accused of establishing a front company to ship cocaine to Europe, representing Italy’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia. In the 15 years since, Albanian networks have become independent.

Albanian agents in Ecuador are often linked to decentralized networks, like “Kompania Bello” Clan “Farruku,” with connections in other Latin American countries and Europe. But these agents are rarely part of a hierarchical structure and though they often work together, they are sometimes competitive.

Their main goal in Ecuador is to negotiate deals with Colombian suppliers and Ecuadorian dispatch networks and to launder money. Albanians’ relationships with local groups

only used for their operations and not limited: they will hire any Ecuadorian group that can offer the service they need with the best guarantee and at the lowest price.Because most cocaine goes to Europe on container ships, they mainly operate in the port of Guayaquil and other areas in Guayas and El Oro.While they may not stay for a long time, many Albanian representatives have decided to stay in Ecuador for an extended period, acquiring wood and fruit companies, as well as import/export businesses, as a way to clean illegal profits and transport cocaine. They have also been known to get their hands dirty,

performing

their own assassinations instead of hiring local guns.

In the February 2024 operation, Ecuadorian authorities launched a large-scale operation against the network of Dritan Gjika’s, also known as “Tonny.” Gjika, a trafficker who epitomizes the Albanian broker model in South America, remains on the run.

He had been based in Ecuador since 2009 and, by the time police arrested over 30 members of his network, it spanned Ecuador, Spain, and the United Kingdom and shipped cocaine to the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Russia, Romania, and Albania.

Gjika had direct “

” links to Colombianlaboratories” and , who supplied him with four tons of cocaine monthly in Ecuador, as reported by European and Ecuadorian police. He hired Ecuadorian transporters to move that cocaine to storage points violently so. 

Ecuador Prison Quietly Released Top Albanian Cocaine Kingpin

in Cotopaxi, El Oro, Santa Elena, Azuay, Pichincha, and Guayas. are Together with his Ecuadorian business partners, Gjika owned fruit companies used as a front to export cocaine to Europe, concealing smaller cocaine loads, from 15 to 40 kilograms, within banana shipments. Larger shipments were hidden in containers leaving from the port of Guayaquil for European ports. Depending on his needs, Gjika hired several Ecuadorian service providers and is known to have worked with both Adolfo Macías, also known as “Fito,” one of the country’s largest drug traffickers and leader of the Choneros, and with

Samir Maestre Mena

, also known as “Samir,” who had a reputation as an accountant to the traffickers before his murder in October 2023. Situated between the world’s top cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has become a hub and base for several transnational criminal networks. Its long coastline and large container ports make it an ideal launching point for drug shipments heading to the United States and Europe. Colombian, Mexican, and Balkan drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) all have an established presence in the country. their own assassinations instead of hiring local guns. 

In the February 2024 operation, Ecuadorian authorities launched a massive operation against the network of Dritan Gjika’s, alias “Tonny.” Gjika, a trafficker who embodies the Albanian broker model in South America, remains on the run.  

He had been based in Ecuador since 2009 and, by the time police arrested over 30 members of his network, it spanned Ecuador, Spain, and the United Kingdom and shipped cocaine to the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Russia, Romania, and Albania. 

Gjika had direct “contractual” links to Colombian laboratories, who supplied him with four tons of cocaine monthly in Ecuador, according to European and Ecuadorian police. He hired Ecuadorian transporters to move that cocaine to storage points in Cotopaxi, El Oro, Santa Elena, Azuay, Pichincha, and Guayas. 

Together with his Ecuadorian business partners, Gjika owned fruit companies used as a front to export cocaine to Europe, concealing smaller cocaine loads, from 15 to 40 kilograms, within banana shipments. Larger shipments were hidden in containers leaving from the port of Guayaquil for European ports. Depending on his needs, Gjika hired several Ecuadorian service providers and is known to have worked with both Adolfo Macías, alias “Fito,” one of the country’s largest drug traffickers and leader of the Choneros, and with Samir Maestre Mena, alias “Samir,” who had a reputation as an accountant to the traffickers before his murder in October 2023.

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