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US Agrees to Deploy Military to Ecuador Following Presidential Candidate's Assassination by Los Choneros Gang

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“Socalj” for Borderland Beat

Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasson in Washington, DC.

According to the Washington Examiner and Texas Representative Dan Crenshaw, The Biden administration has quietly entered into agreements with Ecuador that will allow the United States to send in military forces, both on land and off the coast of the South American country, which has been heavily affected by drug cartels operating in the region.

Select members of Congress were informed during a private briefing on Capitol Hill with Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso on Wednesday, September 26, 2023. Lasso was in Washington to meet with State Department officials and sign two deals, according to Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), who was present at the meeting and spoke with the Washington Examiner on Thursday.

“They were announcing and signing an agreement with the United States,” said Crenshaw, who leads the Congressional Task Force to Combat Mexican Drug Cartels.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-TX shakes hands with Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso, at a private briefing on Capitol Hill on Sept. 27, 2023.

Ecuadorian President Lasso stated, “When we came to government in May 2021, the Ecuadorian criminal organizations with strong ties to the Mexican cartels were practically constituted as powerful structures that have used the prisons as centers of operation. They are economically strong, they are armed, with materials that surpass the police, and have the capacity to co-opt young people.”

The State Department has not publicized the agreements in any of the more than 30 press releases issued since Wednesday, but a State spokesperson confirmed to the Washington Examiner on Friday that it had signed a status of forces agreements and maritime law enforcement agreements.
Senior representatives from the Department of Homeland Security’s military branch, the US Coast Guard, and the Defense Department attended the signing.

US Military Agreement

The maritime agreement allows US military vessels to be present in the waters off the northwestern coast of South America, which Colombian drug cartels use to move cocaine. The ability to move military vessels into the area will “strengthen cooperative law enforcement activities and build mutual capacity to prevent and combat illicit transnational maritime activity,” according to State.
Status of forces agreements outlines the terms by which members of a foreign military, in this case, the Defense Department, can operate or are expected to conduct themselves while in another country.

The second agreement was a less common one, according to Adam Isacson, who heads defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America and has worked on Latin American issues since 1994. 

“That doesn’t mean we’re doing it, but it means we can and it means that they’re making a very clear signal to us that they want more us involved,” Crenshaw said.

The State and Defense Departments did not answer follow-up questions about the duties of troops on deployments to Ecuador and other agreements signed with Latin American countries. The US withdrew all military from the base in Manta, Ecuador, in 2009.

The US Coast Guard, a military branch that is the only one housed under the DHS, not the DOD, has had its Cutter ships deployed across Atlanta, Pacific, and Caribbean regions for years to interdict drug smuggling loads in international waters.

On Sept. 20, Coast Guard Cutter Confidence returned to its home port in Florida following a two-month counternarcotics deployment to the Caribbean and offloaded 12,100 pounds of cocaine valued at $160 million seized in cooperation with partners agencies. 

Assassinated Presidential Candidate Fernando Villavicencio.

Ecuador’s Drug Violence

The country, which is not a major cocaine producer, has seen violence peak when a presidential candidate known for his tough stance on organized crime and corruption, Fernando Villavicencio, was fatally shot at the end of an August 9, 2023 campaign rally.

He had accused the Ecuadorian Los Choneros gang and its imprisoned leader, José “Fito” Adolfo Macías Villamar, whom he linked to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, of threatening him and his campaign team days before his assassination.

The United States recently offered a $5 million reward leading for information to the masterminds of those responsible for the assassination. Organized crime was behind the killing, Ecuador’s president said at the time.

The US also offered a $1,000,000 reward for information on any leaders in the gang responsible for his death. “The United States will continue to support the people of Ecuador and work to bring to justice individuals who seek to undermine democratic processes through violent crime,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who announced the reward, said on Thursday.

Ecuador’s Presidential Candidates.
Ecuador will go to a runoff vote on 15 October between the frontrunner, Luisa González, who has promised to revive the social programs of former president Rafael Correa, and Daniel Noboa, the son of a prominent banana businessman and five-time presidential candidate.
“At the moment we are totally invaded by narco-terrorism and we have to fight it with all the strength we have,” said Noboa, from one of Guayaquil’s wealthiest families. “The violence and death rates we are facing are like those in a warzone – so we should treat it as a war and treat these narco-terrorist groups as our enemy,” he said.

Ecuador saw 4,600 violent deaths in 2022, double the previous year, and the country is set to break the record again with 3,568 violent deaths in the first half of 2023. Of those, nearly half were in Guayas, the province that includes Guayaquil, where nearly 1,700 people have been murdered so far this year.

But the country’s armed forces and police appear to be losing the battle against the narcos who have turned the country into a cocaine superhighway as gangs, both inside and outside the weak and overcrowded prison system, vie for drug trafficking routes, with backing from powerful Mexican cartels.

Los Choneros leader “Fito” being transferred to a more controlled prison.

Due in part to its proximity to cocaine production, cartel groups from Mexico, Colombia, and the Balkans have settled in Ecuador because it uses the US dollar and has weaker laws and institutions, along with a network of long-established gangs like Los Choneros to work with.

Authorities say Ecuador also gained prominence in the global cocaine trade after political changes in Colombia over the last decade. Coca fields in Colombia have been moving closer to the border with Ecuador due to the break-up of criminal groups after the 2016 demobilization of the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, (FARC).

Last week, the body of Los Choneros’ former leader “Junior” Roldan was taken from the vault in the cemetery where he was buried at in Medellin, Colombia following his shooting death in May 2023, across the border in Colombia. He had fled there following an attempt on his life by the rival Los Lobos gang.

Large-scale prison riots and killings have empowered the gangs in Ecuador, to the point of orchestrating the public assassination of a presidential candidate who had spoken out against the gangs, linking the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel based in prisons where they control; and thousands of gang members.

Last month, the cartels showed their power with a mass hostage-taking in six prisons, in an apparent response to the prison transfer of a major gang leader. Over 11,000 troops and law enforcement participated in his transfer to a more secure area of the large prison complex.

Even a narco-corrido was just released about the gang’s current leader “Fito” who was moved to a more controlled prison block.

World’s Largest Banana Exporter

Large drug busts have become more frequent, and within the past month, European authorities have made record-setting busts after inspecting containers carrying bananas from Ecuador. More than 8,000 kilograms of cocaine was allegedly found hidden in a container of bananas intercepted by Dutch authorities.

From January to August 2023, Ecuador exported 247,000,000 boxes of bananas, 7.17% more than in the same period of 2022, according to data from the Banana Marketing and Export Association (Acorbanec). Exports to the European Union amounted to 24,796,000 million boxes and had increased by 22.41%.

Over 8 tons of cocaine, hidden in a large banana export shipment to the Netherlands was discovered.

Record Seizures from Ecuador in 2023

Record Cocaine Seizure in Spain

9.5 tons hidden among cardboard boxes of bananas in a refrigerated container on August 25

Record Cocaine Dutch Seizure

Nearly 8 tons of cocaine in a container of Ecuadorian bananas in July

Authorities in Greece and Italy also announced seizures of cocaine hidden in Ecuadorian bananas this year. Ireland has reported its largest seizure of over 2.25 tons on a cargo ship from Venezuela however, in South America.

In 2021, cocaine production was at an all-time high, and nearly one-third of the cocaine seized by customs authorities in Western and Central Europe came from Ecuador.

This is double the amount reported in 2018, according to a United Nations report citing data from the World Customs Organization. US military forces targeting drug cartels, violence and gangs in Ecuador could set a precedent and/or elevate debates amongst US and Mexican politicians.
Ecuadorian forces outside of prisons.

US Military Forces in Mexico Hot Potato

Political debates and proposals from politicians, including Congress and Presidential candidates to allow the use of United States military forces to be provided to fight Mexican drug cartels in Mexico have increased, especially following the explosion of fentanyl trafficking and overdose deaths in recent years. have primarily been made by Republican politicians, and was heavily debated at the first Republican Presidential Candidate debate.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Mexican drug cartels should be treated like “foreign terrorist organizations” and vowed, “I’m going to use the U.S. military to go after the Mexican drug cartels.” Not to be outdone, Nikki Haley said she would “send in our special operations and we will take out the cartels.”

Should the US military be used to fight Mexican cartels on their turf, it would likely result in the loss of cooperation from Mexico on stopping the flow of drugs or migrants and could potentially lead to fighting between US armed forces and Mexican military or police, corrupted or not and escalate tensions to extreme levels at the southern border with the United States’ second largest trading partner.

In April 2023, following large-scale indictments and sanctions against cartel members, including Los Chapitos; US President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order to grant authority to the DOD and military to provide resources to the southern border to combat drug trafficking across the border.

Previous Status of Force Agreements

The US has long entered into numerous Status of Forces agreements with NATO countries in Europe, allies in Asia, and conflict zones in Africa. But agreements in the Western Hemisphere, and in the Americas, are far less common.

The US signed agreements with Costa Rica in 1983, Nicaragua in 1998, El Salvador in 2007, Honduras and Guatemala in 2020 according to a Government Accountability Office analysis published in 2012 and the US State Department. These countries have all experienced violence and corruption related to drug trafficking as well as rebellions.

While it is not uncommon for US troops to assist governments in times of unrest, rebellions, and violence; it has been rare to have military personnel directly fighting criminal organizations and drug trafficking groups. Usually, assistance in counter-narcotics operations and training in the host country occurs. They also allow for sea and air patrols in the territory by US forces.
In 1989, the US military was granted international arrest capabilities as part of the invasion of Panama in order to arrest General Manuel Noriega, removing the dictator from power. He served time after being convicted in the US of drug trafficking charges. There have also been rumors of US Special Forces, including the Army’s Delta Force being involved in hunting down Pablo Escobar in Colombia in the early 1990s. Escobar had used Panamanian banks to launder drug money and used it as a base outside of Colombia.
The US government and military have however openly provided assistance to Mexico, Colombia, and other countries to combat drug trafficking, including monetary assistance, programs, and shared intelligence. Military gear and weapons have also been provided as part of the assistance packages. Mexican military members have also received training from US troops in the United States.

Sources Washington Examiner, The Guardian, ABC Au, Fresh Plaza, Rep Crenshaw, BBC, State DeptState Dept, White House, Washington Post


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