Turkish Interior Ministry personnel recently thwarted a drug trafficking operation at the international port of Mersin, seizing a shipment of 610 kilograms of cocaine concealed within boxes of bananas imported from Ecuador. Authorities arrested three individuals, including the owner of the importing company.
“This is not the first time,” Turkish officials said, shedding light on similar past seizures involving fruit shipments from Colombia and Ecuador. As Turkey emerges as a key gateway for narcotics flowing into Europe, intensified intelligence operations aim to curb this illicit trade.
The Ecuador Connection: Bananas, Cocaine, and Organized Crime
Ecuador, the world’s largest banana exporter, has not remained uninvolved. While port and airport scanners have been installed by Ecuadorian authorities to counteract drug shipments, illegal cargo has still managed to surface in Belgium and Spain.
Ecuador serves as a focal point for Mexican drug cartels, including the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG), both of which have expanded their operations into the South American country.
“El Oso Yogi”: The Sinaloa Cartel’s Intricate Web
Since 2014, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada’s Sinaloa Cartel have utilized agricultural produce like cucumbers and bananas as camouflage for cocaine shipments. The cartel’s foothold in Ecuador is compounded by its alleged connections with Colombian politicians, known by the alias “El Oso Yogi.”
The Underbelly of Ecuadorian Activism
This issue caught the attention of Fernando Villavicencio, a former presidential candidate and outspoken critic of Mexican cartels. Murdered in 2008, Villavicencio had been vocal about the threats he received, purportedly from “El Fito,” the leader of “Los Choneros,” a criminal outfit linked to the Sinaloa Cartel. Villavicencio had warned of the cartels’ activities in multiple public forums before his assassination in Quito.
Criminal Networks: A Growing Trend in Ecuador
Besides “Los Choneros,” Ecuador is home to other emerging criminal groups like “Los Lobos,” “Tiguerones,” and “Chone Killers,” who claim affiliations to CJNG. These entities are an offshoot of a broader phenomenon: the southward expansion of Mexican cartels, who use the region as a launching pad for drug shipments destined for Europe, Africa, and the United States. Despite CJNG’s growth, the Sinaloa Cartel remains the world’s largest drug trafficking organization.
Bananas and Cocaine: A Lucrative Mix
Ecuador’s prominence as a banana exporter makes it an attractive venue for drug traffickers. Groups like “Los Choneros” and “Los Lobos” exploit the 6.5 million tons of bananas shipped annually from Ecuador to conceal tons of cocaine bound for Europe. This year alone, more than 10 tons of the drug were intercepted in various European ports, with the majority discovered on the Iberian Peninsula.
Ecuador’s Vulnerable Institutions: A Haven for Cartels
According to journalist Regina García Cano, cartels from Mexico, Colombia, and Europe are drawn to Ecuador due to its use of the U.S. dollar and its “weak” anti-drug trafficking laws and institutions. Collaborating with local organizations, the cartels package cocaine at banana plantations, later smuggling it to European ports. In 2022, Ecuadorian authorities reported confiscating 77.4 tons of narcotics, 47.5 tons of which were hidden within banana shipments.
The intertwined narratives of bananas, cartels, and drug trafficking expose the global complexity of the narcotics trade—a reality that countries like Turkey and Ecuador grapple with as they strengthen their countermeasures.