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.
Indeed, despite sincere attempts by the Obama administration to improve U.S.-Ecuador relations—including a June 2010 visit from then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during which Clinton actually hugged the Ecuadorean president—Correa has repeatedly thumbed his nose at Washington. And even though Ecuador is a small country surrounded by more influential neighbors, Correa’s presidency has had a very real (and very negative) impact on U.S. strategic interests. Take the loss of Manta air base: As Wall Street Journal correspondent John Lyons has written, Manta was “a critical post for monitoring airborne drug smuggling,” and Mario Pazmiño, the former head of Ecuadorean military intelligence, believes that the closure of the U.S. base contributed to the proliferation of Ecuadorean drug routes.
What else could explain why Ecuador has suddenly become a Grand Central Station of organized crime? For one thing, Colombia’s successful crackdown on drug lords and the FARC guerrillas has made it much harder for international gangs to do business next door. For another thing, Correa has adopted extremely lax visa policies, which has made it much easier for foreign gangsters to slip in and out of the country. Also, Ecuador is a dollarized economy, which has enticed money launderers.
Then there is rampant police corruption—the sort of corruption that Ambassador Hodges complained about in her dispatch from Quito. This corruption has gotten worse under Correa, and it often has deadly consequences. Consider the story of Byron Baldeón, an Ecuadorean photographer who last May documented evidence of police corruption and subsequently testified in a criminal case. On July 1, he was murdered outside his home by motorcycle-riding gunmen. The shooting occurred in Ecuador’s most murderous province (Guayas).
For now, Correa is riding high on the oil-fueled social spending that has made him so popular among the Ecuadorean poor. But violent crime is a large and growing concern. In a May 2011 report, former United Nations special rapporteur Philip Alston noted that Ecuador’s homicide rate had “skyrocketed” over the previous two decades, rising by 82 percent between 1990 and 2009 to reach 18.7 per 100,000. “In some towns,” said Alston, “the murder rate exceeds 100 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, a rate that puts these areas among the most dangerous in the world.” Beyond murder, Ecuador is also struggling with armed robberies and “express kidnappings.” Earlier this month, in fact, a presidential candidate (Mauricio Rodas) was kidnapped and made to withdraw money from multiple ATM machines.
Unless Correa can get a handle on the violence, his approval rating may soon begin to decline. Either way, his reelection will be bad news for the United States.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.