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Ecuador: easy base for terrorists and criminals?

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• A version of this post ran on the author's site, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Allegations that Ecuador’s lax immigration policies make it a strategic asset to terrorist organizations like al Qaeda are overblown, overshadowing the real danger: that the country is emerging as a hotspot for transnational organized crime.

Ecuador’s leftist President Rafael Correa was voted into office in 2006 on promises of wide-ranging reforms, vowing to push forward a constitutional referendum. The move was passed by referendum in 2007, and Ecuador adopted a new constitution in 2008. But while Correa has embraced the progressive charter’s guarantees of social and economic rights like access to clean water, education, and universal health care, not all of the document’s reforms have played out so well.

Perhaps the most contentious was Article 416, which declares that Ecuador “upholds the principle of universal citizenship, free mobility of all inhabitants of the planet and the gradual end to the condition of foreigner as transforming element of unequal relations amongst countries, especially North-South.”

Correa initially supported the initiative with enthusiasm, calling for an end to "those 20th century inventions, passports and visas." However, it soon provoked a huge influx of migrants from regions such as Southeast Asia and East Africa, many of whom used Ecuador as a stepping stone to enter the United States or Brazil.

Last week, former US Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Otto Reich wrote a scathing critique of this initiative for Foreign Policy, arguing:

The disarray created in Ecuador's immigration policy has permitted transnational criminal organizations and terrorist groups -- possibly including al Qaeda -- to potentially use the country as a base of operations with the ultimate objective of harming the United States.

Although Reich goes on to note that Ecuador tightened its immigration policies somewhat in 2010, he claims that there is “no evidence of Correa wanting to stem the flow,” and warns that some of the most common routes still used by migrants into the country are “Pakistan/Afghanistan-Iran-Venezuela-Ecuador, and Somalia-Dubai-Russia-Cuba-Ecuador.” To him, this represents a security problem for the entire hemisphere.

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At first glance, Reich’s allegations seem to justify concerns about the potential use of Ecuador as a terrorist operations base. As further proof he cites the May 2011 arrest of Yaee Dawit Tadese, said to be a cousin of deceased al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who ran a migrant trafficking ring out of Guayaquil. But while Ecuador’s immigration policy represents a logistical nightmare, its contribution to terrorism in the region is much less of a menace than Reich contends. In a response to Reich’s piece, Ecuador's ambassador to the US Nathalie Cely points out that the presence of individuals from Pakistan and Afghanistan in the country hardly constitutes an automatic danger.

The real security threat in Ecuador lies in the heightened profile of organized crime in the country. As InSight Crime has reported, transnational criminal organizations have been steadily building up influence in Ecuador. Last summer Jay Bergman, the director of US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) activities in the Andes, told Reuters that Ecuador is becoming a melting pot for international organized criminal groups, most of which specialize in drug trafficking. "We have cases of Albanian, Ukrainian, Italian, Chinese organized crime all in Ecuador, all getting their product for distribution to their respective countries," said Bergman.

Geoffrey Ramsey  is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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