Politics & Policy

High-Flying Drug Links

Ecuador’s president has a history of anti-American actions and connections to the drug trade.

Wars in the Middle East and other conflicted areas understandably occupy the attention of the American people and our policymakers. While that is reasonable, there are other more subtle threats to U.S. security in our own neighborhood, even if they escape the news headlines and broadcasts. Our nation, however, must be aware of all risks at all times, especially those close to home and for which there are advance warnings. Drug trafficking and its attendant money laundering are two such threats we must be aware of.

For example, in July of this year, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) confiscated three jet aircraft in Florida belonging to an American company, Sky Elite Jet Corporation, based in Ft. Lauderdale. Though the DEA routinely seizes property suspected of having been used in drug trafficking or money laundering, this seizure was newsworthy because the company has links to the government of Ecuador and reportedly to the president himself. Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, is an outspoken populist who admires Fidel Castro and joined the late Hugo Chávez’s anti-American ALBA alliance.

Ecuadorian congressmen and journalists who have dared investigate the possible association of Correa with the air-charter company have been threatened. One such congressman, Cléver Jiménez, is currently hiding from Correa’s security forces in his own country.

The Ecuadorian president’s overly aggressive stance does not surprise observers familiar with his administration’s history of suspicious relations with organized crime. Moreover, suspicions are heightened by Correa’s pushback against journalists and legislators investigating the allegations about the DEA-seized aircraft.

Since assuming the presidency of Ecuador in January 2007, Correa has been quietly building an authoritarian regime based on his particular brand of virulent anti-Americanism; he’s also been conducting activities that have damaged the interests of the United States while undermining freedoms in Ecuador.

From the outset, Correa developed dangerous liaisons with criminal organizations, dismantled successful anti-narcotics operations, expelled U.S. diplomats, halted important law-enforcement agreements, persecuted reporters and media organizations, and seriously interfered with the independence of the judiciary, following in the steps of his revolutionary comrades in Cuba and Venezuela.

Information from the captured computer of the late Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla leader Raúl Reyes, who was killed in his Ecuadorian encampment when it was raided by the Colombian army in 2008, showed that Correa received financing for his presidential campaign in 2006 from the FARC. The organization’s deep links to drug trafficking led to its formal designation as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European governments.

The Reyes files documented a close relationship between the FARC and Correa. For example, in a September 24, 2006, message, Reyes applauds the possibility of Correa winning the forthcoming presidential election and reveals that “important members of his presidential campaign have visited us.” One of these was an Ecuadorian colonel by the name of Brito, described by Reyes in a message dated January 5, 2007, as an “emissary of Rafael Correa.”

It was no surprise, then, that early in his administration Correa began promoting the dismantling of the U.S.-supported Manta air base, the most important counter-narcotics aerial-surveillance center in the region. Borrowing a page from the script of then–Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who suspended all agreements with the DEA in 2005, Correa ordered the closing of Manta in 2009, citing a supposed violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty but ignoring regional concerns about the increasing activities of Colombian and Mexican cartels in Ecuador.

Predictably, after the Manta closure, drug trafficking through Ecuador skyrocketed. The next year, U.S. authorities said, more than 300 drug ships departed the country loaded with drugs and sailed through the Pacific Ocean toward U.S. destinations. The U.S. Coast Guard captured off Ecuador a 70-foot submersible, capable of transporting up to seven tons of cocaine, one of many such vessels seized.

In January 2009, Correa closed a special-investigations and anti-corruption unit of the Ecuadorian police that was working with the U.S. Embassy in Quito. Correa added insult to injury by expelling U.S. diplomats Armando Astorga and Max Sullivan, both in charge of the unit’s collaboration with the Ecuadorian police.

In April 2011, Correa took the diplomatically hostile act of declaring U.S. ambassador Heather Hodges persona non grata and throwing her out of the country, on the basis of a classified cable from 2009 released by WikiLeaks, in which she documented corruption in the Ecuadorian police, some of whose members had links to the highest levels of government.

The same year, Jay Bergman, director for the Andean region of the DEA, said that Ecuador was becoming a “United Nations of organized crime,” with drug traffickers from Mexico, Colombia, Albania, Nigeria, China, Russia, and others using the country as a platform, including such dangerous cartels as Los Zetas and Sinaloa.

Several top-level Ecuadorian government officials have been tainted by drug scandals – from ministers and ambassadors to presidential advisers, including Correa’s sister — with no punitive action taken.

Even the Ecuadorian foreign ministry has been compromised in drug cases, such as the seizure of nearly 90 pounds of cocaine in boxes shipped by diplomatic pouch to the Ecuadorian consulate in Milan in 2011, according to an investigation by the Italian police.

By U.S. estimates, up to 110 metric tons of cocaine transit Ecuador annually. Yet cocaine seizures have decreased from 40 metric tons in 2009, the year the Manta base was closed, to 21 metric tons in 2012.

In spite of the increasing traffic, the United States was forced to close its counter-narcotics office in Quito this year, because of a lack of cooperation from Correa’s government. In 2013 Correa did not renew agreements with the U.S. Agency for International Development, thus ending USAID’s presence in Ecuador. In the first months of 2014, Correa expelled all personnel of the U.S. Embassy’s military office. Apparently desensitized to Correa’s tantrums, the U.S. government simply expressed “regret” over the decision.

The DEA is not commenting on its ongoing investigation into the aircraft seized in Florida. But based on past performance by Ecuador’s president, evidence may well lead to complicity at high levels of his government. That may explain Correa’s fury against journalists and lawmakers intent on investigating. The U.S. government needs to do more than simply express regret over a series of anti-U.S. actions by a hostile autocrat.

— Otto J. Reich, now a Washington consultant, is a former ambassador to Venezuela and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

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