Ecuador, the world’s largest exporter of bananas, is facing challenges from the infiltration of drug traffickers in its banana industry. The country, situated between major cocaine producers Peru and Colombia, has become a preferred route for smuggling cocaine using containers filled with bananas. This has led to a surge in violence, including shootings, homicides, kidnappings, and extortions, particularly in the port city of Guayaquil.
Authorities attribute Ecuador’s prominence in the global cocaine trade to its proximity to cocaine production and weak laws and institutions. Cartels from Mexico, Colombia, and the Balkans have settled in Ecuador due to its use of the U.S. dollar and the presence of long-established gangs like Los Choneros. Political changes in Colombia have also contributed to the shift, as coca bush fields have moved closer to the Ecuadorian border following the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016.
The impact of drug trafficking on Ecuador’s banana industry is significant. Large drug busts have become more frequent, with European authorities seizing record amounts of cocaine hidden in containers of Ecuadorian bananas. Banana growers, exporters, shipping corporations, port operators, private security companies, customs agents, agriculture officials, police, and buyers unknowingly or knowingly provide opportunities for drug traffickers to exploit. Some traffickers have created front companies or acquired legitimate businesses, including plantations, while others have corrupted or intimidated workers and officials involved in the shipping process.
The consequences of drug trafficking in Ecuador are dire. The country has experienced a doubling of violent deaths from 2021 to 2022, with a record-breaking 4,600 deaths recorded in a year. In the first half of 2023, 3,568 violent deaths have already been tallied, indicating a potential new annual record. The rise in homicides is accompanied by an increase in cocaine seizures at the country’s ports, reaching 77.4 metric tons in 2022.
In Guayaquil, where maritime shipping containers are prevalent, residents live in fear. Safety precautions such as metal bars on convenience store entrances and early closures of restaurants have become common.