Men walk through a lush plantation between Ecuador ’s balmy Pacific coast and its majestic Andes, lopping hundreds of bunches of green bananas from groaning plants twice their height.
Workers haul the bunches to an assembly line, where the bananas are washed, weighed and plastered with stickers for European buyers. Owner Franklin Torres is monitoring all activity on a recent morning to make sure the fruit meets international beauty standards — and ever more important, is packed for shipment free of cocaine.
Torres is hypervigilant because Ecuador is increasingly at the confluence of two global trades: bananas and cocaine.
Drug traffickers’ infiltration of the industry that is responsible for about 30% of the world’s bananas has contributed to unprecedented violence across this once-peaceful nation. Shootings, homicides, kidnappings and extortions have become part of daily life, particularly in the Pacific port city and banana-shipping hub of Guayaquil.
“This is everyone’s responsibility: the person who transports it, the person who buys it, the person who consumes it,” vendor Dalia Chang, 59, a lifelong resident of Guayaquil, said of the cocaine trade. “They all share responsibility. They have ruined our country.”
The country, which is not a major cocaine producer, was especially rattled when a presidential candidate known for his tough stance on organized crime and corruption — Fernado Villavicencio — was fatally shot at the end of an Aug. 9 campaign rally. He had accused the Ecuadorian Los Choneros gang and its imprisoned leader, whom he linked to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, of threatening him and his campaign team days before the assassination.
In addition to its proximity to cocaine production, cartels from Mexico, Colombia and the Balkans have settled in Ecuador because it uses the U.S. dollar and has weak laws and institutions, along with a network of long-established gangs like Los Choneros that are eager for work.
Authorities say Ecuador also gained prominence in the global cocaine trade after political changes in Colombia last decade. Coca bush fields in Colombia have been moving closer to the border with Ecuador due to the breakup of criminal groups after the 2016 demobilization of the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better-known by their Spanish acronym FARC.
A record 2,304 metric tons of cocaine was manufactured in 2021 around the world, mostly in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. That year, nearly a third of the cocaine seized by customs authorities in Western and Central Europe came from Ecuador, double the amount reported in 2018, according to a United Nations report citing data from the World Customs Organization. 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.
Authorities on Aug. 25 announced Spain’s biggest cocaine haul yet: 9.5 metric tons hidden among cardboard boxes of bananas from Ecuador in a refrigerated container. Dutch officials also made their country’s largest-ever cocaine seizure last month — nearly 8 metric tons — in a container of Ecuadorian bananas. Authorities in Greece and Italy also announced seizures of cocaine hidden in Ecuadorian bananas this year.