U.S. Drug War Arrives in Ecuador, with Baggage

U.S. Southern Command – Gen. Laura J. Richardson – Public Domain

Joined by other U.S. officials, Laura Richardson, commander of the U.S. Army’s Southern Command, was in Ecuador January 22-25 to confer with government leaders there about U.S. military assistance. They included recently elected, and very wealthy, President Daniel Noboa. She mentioned to reporters an “investment portfolio…worth $93.4 million including not only military equipment … [but also] humanitarian assistance and disaster response, [and] professional military education.”

Prompting the visit was recently intensifying crime and turmoil manifesting as prison riots, escapes from prisons, and assassinations of political figures. A homicide rate of 5.8 per 100,000 persons in 2017 increased to 43 murders per 1000 Ecuadorians in 2023.

In the “grip of drug gangs,” Ecuador has been receiving cocaine and other illicit drugs produced and processed in countries such as Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. From Guayaquil and Esmeraldas, ports in Ecuador, the goods move on to U.S. and European consumers. The cartels’ former routes, through Central America and the Caribbean, are less active.

Ecuador’s government recently decreed a state of “internal armed conflict.” Its Army now has charge of domestic security.  From 2017 to 2023, governments under presidents Lenin Moreno and Guillermo Lasso arranged for privatizations, fiscal austerity, and a reduced package of state services. Resources are lacking to deal with powerful region-wide drug cartels now operating in the country.  U.S. military intervention would fill the gap.

The U.S. so-called drug war, as waged in Latin America and the Caribbean, began during the Nixon administration. Notable examples are Plan Colombia from 1999 until 2015 and the Merida Initiative, applied to Mexico from 2007 until 2021. The U.S. media provocatively associates drug cartels with international terrorism.  U.S. drug war spending has reached $1 trillion over four decades, says a report.

Ecuador’s situation has special features. Analyst Pablo Dávalos sees “convergence among political power, organized crime, and narcotrafficking to allow [Ecuador’s] use of the dollar as its national currency to enable money laundering.” Organized crime “controls vast areas” and Ecuadorians “refusing to pay extorsions are being systematically eliminated.”

Eloy Osvaldo Proaño of the Latin American Center of Strategic Analysis points out that the “neoliberal recipe reduces institutional presence, which weakens control of borders and facilitates penetration of criminal gangs.” What President Noboa has proposed “is part of a regional plan of paramilitaries occupying wide areas to instill terror, tear apart the social fabric and subdue populations.”

The “22 organizations declared [by Noboa] to be ‘terrorist groups’ … have a capacity of maneuver and omnipresence enabling them to control territories and prisons, even to penetrate the institutions [of the state].”

Ecuador recently became the leading recipient of U.S. military assistance in Latin America and the Caribbean area. More is on the way. Ecuador’s defense minister indicated the U.S. government will be “investing” $3.1 billion in military assistance over seven years.

Planning has been elaborate:

• The FBI in 2017 assisted the “lawfare” campaign of President Guillermo Lasso against President Rafael Correa, his progressive predecessor.
• The U.S. Congress on December 15, 2022, approved the United States-Ecuador Partnership Act of 2022.
• A memorandum of understanding was signed in Washington in July 2023. It covers U.S. efforts to strengthen Ecuador’s military capacities and combat the drug trade.
• A binational agreement was signed on August 16, 2023 for cooperation in building the capacity of Ecuador’s military, police, and judiciary.
• President Lasso in Washington on September 28, 2023 signed agreements allowing U.S. troops and naval personnel to deploy in Ecuador.
• Ecuador’s foreign minister signed a status of forces agreement with the U.S. ambassador on October 6, 2023 relating to privileges, immunities, and guarantees for U.S. armed forces personnel.
• Ecuador’s Constitutional Court on January 11, 2024 ratified the U.S.- Ecuador security agreement.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro in September, 2022 recalled an earlier conversation with General Richardson about “the failure of [U.S.] anti-drug policies.” He mentioned to her that, “It’s our obligation … to say that and also to propose alternatives that don’t allow a million more Latin Americans to die.”

Petro has company. Many progressives in the United States and elsewhere also regard the U.S. drug war as a failure. Facts are on their side:

• Narcotrafficking has increased despite drug war.
• Moneys spent on drug war is money not spent on preventative programs and poverty reduction.
• U.S.-assisted militarization of targeted countries undermines democratic renewal.
• Drug war means profits to weapons suppliers, narco-traffickers, and money-laundering banks and businesses.
• The United States, the great consumer of illicit drugs, bears responsibility for not reducing consumption.

This consensus resonated at the Latin American and Caribbean Conference on Drugs – for Life, Peace, and Development that took place September 7-9, 2023 in Cali, Colombia. President Petro and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had called for the gathering. Attending were officials of 19 regional nations and representatives both of observer countries and international social organizations.

The object was “to rethink drug policies in response to the failure of the punitive strategy imposed by the United States.” The most impactful recommendations emerging were these:

• Change basic assumptions by recognizing the failure of the U.S. war on drugs.
• Contain the drug problem internally by dealing with structural causes of poverty, inequalities, lack of opportunities, and violence.
• Block drug trafficking through “principles of justice and through development.” Fight poverty by giving people opportunities, youth especially.
• Explore legal modes of drug consumption.
• Reduce demand through “universal prevention” and attending to mental health problems.

Why does the U.S. government fight narcotrafficking in Ecuador? Its agenda is full already. Its prohibitions on narcotics use at home are less than effective.

Here’s a hint. Indigenous peoples organized by Ecuador’s Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE) carried out week-long national strike in June 2022.  At issue were labor rights, rescuing the environment, poor families’ unmet needs, and support for small farmers. A people’s political resistance movement evidently exists there.

Leonidas Iza, the CONAIE leader, now speaks out in regard to General Richardson’s visit.He told an interviewer that, “We struggle for the Ecuadorian people” and that, “We are ceding not only military sovereignty, sovereignty over our country but even more: we are submitting to their desire to control our resources.”

All is revealed. What’s happening is nationwide political resistance striking at U.S. economic and political interests abroad. The U.S. government characteristically takes protective action in such circumstances.

Drug war serves as a cover for putting U.S. troops and U.S. proxies on the ground for preventative purposes. In Colombia, under Plan Colombia, the U.S. military joined up with Colombia’s Army to confront leftist insurgencies. A U.S. military presence would have been handy in Peru and Bolivia to ward off indigenous mobilizations led, respectively, by former presidents Pedro Castillo and Evo Morales.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.