Hidden in bananas and tea, cocaine leaves Ecuador’s port by the ton

Trying to stop drug traffickers from hiding cocaine in cargo containers at Ecuador’s main port of Guayaquil is becoming an increasingly costly headache for police and exporters.

The ingenuity of criminal gangs causes tons of cocaine to leave the port hidden in food containers.

Surrounded by a poor neighborhood, the port of Guayaquil bustles with activity, where trained dogs sniff here and there while police cut up bananas, pineapples and even tea drums in search of drugs.

Customs officers in Guayaquil manually check a fifth of the containers to ensure that exporting companies are not a front for the mafia.

Two German Shepherds, Wolf and Jessi, help the officers but they can only work 10 minutes at a time to be effective.

A member of the anti-narcotics police and a dog check for drugs in crates of bananas destined for Italy at the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador, April 12, 2022 Photo: AFP / Marcos Pin

“We can’t tire them too much, otherwise we won’t find drugs,” Richard Riera, head of the national police’s ports and airports information unit, told AFP.

Thanks to the dogs, liquid drugs concealed by traffickers inside tea barrels were recently detected after being scanned without incident.

Drug traffickers “prefer the port because that’s where the majority of exports go to Europe and the United States,” Riera said.

Drug traffickers often break into containers of bananas on the side of the road or at the port of Guayaquil to transport cocaine Drug traffickers often break into containers of bananas on the side of the road or at the port of Guayaquil to transport cocaine Photo: AFP / Marcos Pin

Located between Colombia and Peru – the world’s two largest producers of cocaine – Ecuador seized a record 210 tons of powder in 2021, of which 96 tons were discovered in Guayaquil.

A third of the seizures were destined for Europe while a further 11% were destined for the United States, according to police.

“Our country has moved from being a collection center to becoming an international drug distribution platform,” said national anti-narcotics chief Giovanni Ponce.

Drug-related violence is on the rise in the neighboring state of Guayas, where 78% of the 404 murders recorded so far this year have been linked to drug trafficking, Ponce told the Teleamazonas news channel.

Outside the port, in the streets of the city, organized crime keeps the local population in a state of terror with bodies beheaded or hung from bridges.

In the first quarter of this year, police seized 15.8 tons of drugs in the port of Guayaquil alone, four times more than in the same period of 2021.

The Ecuadorian port of Guayaquil has 12 private terminals and handles 85% of the country's non-oil exports. The Ecuadorian port of Guayaquil has 12 private terminals and handles 85% of the country’s non-oil exports. Photo: AFP / Marcos Pin

But checking 2.4 million containers a year “is a daunting task,” Riera said.

The port has 12 private terminals and handles 85% of Ecuador’s non-oil exports, or approximately 25 million metric tons of product per year.

Officials say they need more security guards and more discreet scanners that don’t harm bananas and shrimp, the country’s flagship exports, but there is only one in the whole country. ‘Ecuador.

Exporters are frustrated by the number of infiltrated drug containers.

Criminal gangs break the locks, take out the legal cargo and replace it with bricks of cocaine.

“Often they go all the way to the point of origin” in the factory, said Javier Lancha de Micheo, owner of the private Contecon terminal.

The company had to install security cameras in the terminal and introduce security checks on people and vehicles entering the premises.

Banana exports are the most affected.

These containers are often punctured on the side of the road as well as in the port itself.

“We are the main victims because we move 7,000 containers of bananas a week,” said Richard Salazar, executive director of the Banana Marketing and Export Association.

Companies spend $200 per container on security measures such as satellite monitoring and private contractors.

But each time drugs are discovered, authorities seize the entire container as evidence, to the detriment of its owners.

“No one is taking responsibility for the loss. Each container is worth $12,000,” added Salazar, who says the industry has asked for help.

“We have requested and demanded an integrated security policy in Ecuador…as an additional option to the private efforts that each exporter is already making.”

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