Ecuador fishermen increasingly fall prey to drug gangs
"Captain, bring your boat closer," shouts an Ecuadoran naval officer aboard a launch patrolling the Gulf of Guayaquil on a route traffickers use to ferry drugs to the high seas.
Guayaquil, on Ecuador's southern Pacific coast, has become a strategic point for the shipment of hundreds of tons of drugs, mostly cocaine, to the US or Europe.
Since the rightist government of Guillermo Lasso came to power in 2021, Ecuador has seized some 500 tons of drugs.
"This is a routine inspection," the naval officer shouts, as his rifle-bearing colleagues check the crew's documents and crates on the small boat.
In one of his several attempts to contain the illicit traffic, Lasso declared criminal gangs to be terrorists, thereby granting the military a policing role without having to declare an emergency.
A fisherman who said he was afraid to give his name said he and his counterparts are at the mercy of the criminal gangs navigating the Gulf of Guayaquil, at the entrance to Ecuador's main commercial port.
Armed men in launches, some with rifles, "are robbing and extorting money from crabbers and the people fishing there," he told AFP.
Fishermen and crabbers are forced to pay them $20 to $30 a week for the right to work unimpeded in the area -- one of the most violent in Ecuador.
Drug-linked criminality has surged here, with the homicide rate nearly doubling between 2021 and 2022, from 14 to 25 per 100,000 inhabitants.
- Pervasive fear -
With its declaration of war on narco-traffickers, the government has intensified the military's presence in land and sea operations.
"There are many settlements around the Gulf of Guayaquil... which criminal organizations use to gain access to carry out their illegal activities at sea," one soldier told AFP, a mask covering his face.
Among the residents of the many humble homes that line the gulf, fear is pervasive.
"Everything is scary -- going fishing or crabbing," 77-year-old housewife Ilda Vera told AFP on Puerto Libertad island.
Her sons have organized nightly watches to keep criminals from stealing their boats -- the family's only source of sustenance.
A string of robberies and even killings have struck fear into residents' hearts, she said.
In his effort to combat the gangs, Lasso has decreed several states of emergency, even giving a green light to residents to carry guns for their own defense.
Still, reports of hired killers, seizures and extortion have multiplied in Ecuador, which is sandwiched between Colombia and Peru, the world's biggest cocaine producers.
Out at sea, a red mark on a boat's motor ensures another week of work. It is the sign criminals use to identify those who have paid protection money -- or been "vaccinated," as they say.
"They pay because they want to work in peace," said the fisherman, shrugging his shoulders.