About two years ago, a senior Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official said that a certain Latin American country was becoming a veritable “United Nations” of organized criminal activity, attracting gangsters from such diverse and faraway places as Albania, China, Italy, and Ukraine. He was not talking about Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia, or Brazil. No, Jay Bergman, the DEA’s Andean regional director, was describing Ecuador, a small nation of 15 million people that is tucked between two of the largest cocaine-producing countries on earth. “If I’m an Italian organized drug trafficker and I want to meet with my Colombian counterpart,” Bergman told Reuters, “I would probably prefer to meet in Ecuador than to meet in Colombia.”
Last October, Ecuadorean police busted a pair of drug networks with Eastern European connections. Several weeks later, former Ecuadorean military intelligence chief Mario Pazmiño estimated that the number of maritime routes used for shipping drugs out of the country had increased by 90 percent since 2005. “Even if the increase in transit routes is less than the 90 percent claimed by Pazmiño,” observed James Bargent of InSight Crime, “the scale of the challenge facing Ecuadorean security forces is already daunting and, as Pazmiño’s analysis suggests, is getting larger by the year.”
In short, Ecuador has turned into a hub of cocaine smuggling, money laundering, and other illegal enterprises. That is the biggest reason why Sunday’s Ecuadorean presidential election matters to U.S. interests.
The outcome of the February 17 election is not in doubt: Barring a political miracle, 49-year-old Rafael Correa will easily win a third term in office, partly because the opposition is hopelessly divided. A Hugo Chávez acolyte who first took power in January 2007 (and who allegedly received money from the Colombian FARC during his 2006 campaign), Correa is a classic populist demagogue who has followed the autocratic playbook of his Venezuelan mentor and used Ecuador’s oil wealth to maintain a high approval rating. Immediately after taking office, he formed a constituent assembly that rewrote the Ecuadorean constitution and massively expanded presidential power. The old constitution did not allow presidents to serve consecutive terms. But if Correa triumphs on Sunday, Ecuadoreans won’t be able to vote for his successor until 2017. In the meantime, he will enjoy quasi-authoritarian control over the courts and the media, thanks to a 2011 referendum that further enhanced his powers.
Correa’s style of politics—the same type of politics practiced by Chávez in Venezuela, by Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, and by Evo Morales in Bolivia—relies on class warfare, thuggery, and demonization. In addition to vilifying his domestic political opponents, the Ecuadorean leader has also vilified the United States. Five years, his government curtly told Washington that it would be kicking all U.S. military personnel out of Manta air base following the expiration of a lease agreement in 2009. For a decade, starting in 1999, American forces had used Manta (located in western Ecuador along the Pacific coast) to conduct anti-drug operations, and their presence had reportedly contributed $6.5 million per year to the local economy. But Correa decided they had to leave. In April 2011, he decided that U.S. ambassador Heather Hodges had to leave, too. Her offense? Criticizing Ecuadorean police corruption in a diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. That was enough to get Hodges expelled from Quito.