Spanish authorities say they worked with Ecuadorean police to stop a freighter off the South American country’s coast carrying more than 5.5 metric tons of cocaine headed to Spain.
Spanish national police also said another boat, a Venezuelan fishing vessel, was intercepted with 2.4 metric tons of cocaine.
The Interior Ministry said Ecuadorean agents boarded the ship nearly 3 nautical miles off the coast of Santa Elena province, according to the Associated Press.
A statement issued on Monday said the ship was loaded with Colombian cocaine in the Pacific and was to travel through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic to Europe. The statement, seen by the AP, said the shipment was organised by a drug-trafficking ring based in northeastern Galicia.
Police found 176 bags of cocaine concealed in the cargo and arrested the 20 men on the ship. One of them was a Spaniard allegedly belonging to the Galician trafficking ring. Four other people were arrested in Spain.
The seizure of nearly 8 metric tons of cocaine comes after a week in which Ecuadorean authorities intercepted 3.5 metric tons of the drug in four operations, according to El Universo.
The first bust was May 4, when a coast guard patrol stopped a boat near the Galapagos Islands with two Ecuadoreans and a Colombian aboard, finding 964 kilograms of cocaine reportedly destined for Central American.
A day later, in the small fishing town of Anconcito on Ecuador’s central coast, police seized more than 500 kilograms of cocaine and arrested 23 of Ecuadoreans allegedly involved in trafficking drugs to the US.
On Saturday, police aided by dogs discovered more than a metric ton of cocaine hidden in a container with a commercial banana shipment (a popular smuggling method for traffickers) destined for Belgium.
On Sunday, police in a fishing town about 100 miles northeast of Quito found another metric ton of cocaine that was about to shipped by sea.
The latter two seizures yielded no arrests.
Ecuador, perched between major cocaine producers in Peru and Colombia, has long been a transshipment point for the drug.
Recent years appear to underscore how the country has quickly become a major transit point for drug traffickers.
“One of the largest increases in cocaine seizures in the past five years has been observed in Ecuador, where the amount of cocaine seized rose by over 242 per cent, amounting to 50 metric tons in 2014,” the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board wrote in its 2015 report
In the first two months of 2015 alone, Ecuador saw a fivefold increase in illegal-drug seizures compared to 2014.
At the beginning of March 2016, US officials in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, intercepted 154 pounds of cocaine valued at $US2 million that had come from the Ecuador. That bust was preceded by two operations off Ecuador’s coast that netted about 3,200 pounds of cocaine.
2016 saw Ecuadorean authorities seize 110 metric tons of drugs, particularly cocaine.
Through November 2016, the country had intercepted 61 metric tons of that drug, exceeding the 59 metric tons of it captured throughout 2015.
In one incident already this year, authorities in Ecuador seized 2.3 metric tons of liquid cocaine mixed with oil and set to be shipped to Mexico.
Ecuador’s rising prominence in the drug trade is likely the result of a number of factors — not all of them domestic.
In Colombia, the ongoing peace process with the left-wing FARC rebels has pulled some of those rebels out of the drug trade, allowing criminal groups to move in, especially in the production hotspot of Nariño, which borders Ecuador.
Cultivation of coca, cocaine’s base ingredient, is also booming in Colombia for a variety of reasons, including decreased eradication efforts and increased economic incentives.
Inside Ecuador, smuggling efforts have been facilitated by powerful criminal networks — Colombian and Mexican groups among them. Maritime routes also appear to have grown in popularity as the country’s fishermen struggle to find work.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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