Ecuador isn´t accustomed to the bombings and kidnappings that have bedeviled neighboring Colombia for decades. The violence that has been rocking the border area near key oil installations in recent months is quickly changing that.
Ecuador´s military has stepped up security at oil refineries, crude and refined products pipelines, oil fields and fuel stations in and around the northern province of Esmeraldas. That´s where drug traffickers led by Guacho, an alias used by an Ecuadorean dissident of Colombia´s former guerrilla group Farc, have been fighting to protect territory they use to transport and export their illicit cargo.
This is the same territory where the tiny Opec country produces, transports and refines most of its oil.
The conflict took a dark turn after two journalists from El Comercio, Ecuador´s most important newspaper, and their driver were kidnapped on 26 March, and later killed. Now Guacho´s ruthless gang is obstructing the return of their bodies, even as news of another kidnapping sinks in.
The conflict is a test for Ecuador´s president Lenin Moreno. After taking office in May 2017, he unexpectedly broke ranks with his populist predecessor Rafael Correa, whom he served as vice president. He boldly jailed Correa´s corrupt strongman Jorge Glas and is now taking concrete measures to bring back foreign investment. In the oil sector, the largest source of Ecuador´s hard currency, the government is restoring the production-sharing model that was scrapped by the Correa administration in favor of fee-based contracts. It is also tackling a long list of unfinished or defective energy projects tainted by corruption, including a costly upgrade of the Esmeraldas refinery that will take up to three years to repair.
Less than 12 months into his four-year term, Moreno is promising to crack down on the lawless frontier that was largely tolerated under the previous government. In this objective his government is cooperating closely with Colombia, ground zero of the unrest and a country where oil pipeline attacks and their environmental consequences are depressingly routine.
It´s no surprise that Bogota´s sophisticated military, close security ties to Washington and an unauthorized 2007 military raid on a guerrilla hideout in Ecuador raise deep suspicions among Correa´s vocal partisans. But one need look no further than Venezuela, across Colombia´s restive eastern border, to see how deeply the region´s drug cartels are capable of penetrating into states that harbor them.
Colombia´s relentless strife shows that Guacho will fall, sooner or later, either at the hands of the military or a rival for his slice of the lucrative cocaine business. What will not go away anytime soon is Latin America´s violent illicit drugs enterprise, grossly nurtured by the bottomless appetite of North America and Europe where for many, the region’s drug battles are little more than a Netflix series. For Ecuador and its oil-producing neighbors, there is no changing the channel.