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José Carlos * heard the sound of an approaching boat. It was the prelude to his ordeal at sea.
The Ecuadorian fisherman was in a boat with his countryman and two Guatemalans when the United States Coast Guard (USCG) intercepted them in international waters.
The man of about 30 years had sailed off the coast of Manta, in western Ecuador, with a dangerous package: more than 300 kilos of Colombian cocaine whose final destination was the United States.
He had been promised $ 10,000 if he succeeded, something that would have helped him a lot to improve his life and that of his family, accustomed to living with the few dollars that the fisherman’s trade pays.
Its mission was to take the cargo to Central American coasts and deliver it to another vessel that would handle the rest.
The US authorities, who claim the power to act in international waters, turned that trip driven by the need for José Carlos on a journey of months into a kind of “floating prison“, a trial in the United States and a 10-year sentence of seclusion
“Vuelta” is what they call on the coasts of Ecuador and Colombia to cross international waters with a drug load destined to reach the United States.
In general, those who embark on this risky journey from South American coasts move through the Pacific and have the mission of delivering the cargo to other vessels from Guatemala, Honduras or Mexico.
In the port city of Manta, for years we have heard stories of people who made up to US $20,000 for having made a successful “return”, but there are also more and more stories of those who were not so lucky and were captured by a USCG vessel.
David, another Ecuadorian fisherman, was one of them. Three years ago “he simply disappeared,” his wife Katherine tells BBC Mundo.
“I didn’t know anything. One day he left as usual, but his trips to fish lasted two, three or a maximum of 15 days,” says the mother of David’s two children.
It was almost three months before the woman learned that her husband was detained and would be prosecuted in the United States.
As with many families living similar cases, Katherine came to think that her partner had died after so many weeks without receiving any news from him.
She completely ignored that during that time her husband was detained and incommunicado while being transported by sea to US territory.
David was then sentenced to 11 years in prison currently serving a federal detention center in New Jersey.
The sea voyage
The arrests in international waters made by the USGS have provoked different questions inside and outside the United States.
For example, the increasingly numerous cases of Ecuadorians who were persuaded or coerced to be part of a ” return ” are analyzed in the recent investigation “Adrift: social repercussions of drug trafficking in the Ecuadorian Pacific”, where similar cases are detailed to those of David and José Carlos.
The work, carried out by the Ecuadorian consulting firm Parametría, details some of the abuses suffered by detainees in the face of existing legal gaps regarding catches in international waters.
“Suddenly a small American coastguard boat (from the US) arrives, and then a Mexican one also arrives. Between the two boats they agree and stop us there. I also remember that our feet were chained and from there they took us on the ship. We don’t receive any kind of punishment or torture, but we went to several countries, “says one of the testimonies published in the research that has several authors.
In “Adrift …” it is reported that those captured pass through ports in Guatemala and Panama and even through the US detention center in Guantanamo (Cuba) before being transferred and tried in US courts.
“The duration of the floating imprisonment is not subject to any principle that ensures any certainty over time. With this, not only the rules of the due process of the United States or Ecuador are violated, but also the international principles that demand the delivery or disposition immediate detention of detainees before a judge, “says the text.
The investigation adds that, under these conditions, “no detainee knows for sure what fate his fate will run after the boarding and detention by the Coast Guard (…) Captivity is simply timeless.”
” The versions of the detainees highlight the maintenance of conditions that are in detention, ranging from the use of chains and shackles to food and physiological restrictions, ” the investigation adds.
Parametry points out that arrests of this type have been known in USCG vessels of up to 90 days, although testimonies collected by Ecuadorian media maintain that there were longer cases of seclusion.
For its part, the US Coast Guard notes that its actions in international waters of the Pacific are successes in the fight against drug trafficking.
The entity, in its latest annual activity report, highlights that the actions carried out at sea allowed it to seize 210 tons in 2018, while in 2013 the figure only reached 88 tons .
“The strategy of the Coast Guard is to maintain a strong presence of seizure of drugs at sea that prevents the access of traffickers to the sea routes,” says the entity.
The seizures achieved by the USCG are mostly cocaine, but boats loaded with marijuana, heroin and other opioids were also found.
In 2017 alone, 708 people were arrested in interdiction operations, including Colombians, Ecuadorians and Guatemalans.
The Coast Guard notes that since the implementation in 2014 of its ” strategy for the Western Hemisphere ,” the number of drug traffickers arrested annually has doubled and the number of cases referred for prosecution in the United States. it’s been duplicated.
He also points out that the interrogations of the apprehended and the analysis of the evidence found at sea help intelligence and allow prosecutors to identify thousands of drug traffickers.
“Almost three-fourths of the traffickers designated priority objectives that were extradited to the United States from South America were linked by the USCG interdictions, including several extradited high-level drug traffickers that the Department of Justice successfully processed,” says the entity in its report. annual.
The Coast Guard adds that its operations at sea are carried out in coordination and with the support of different countries.
BBC Mundo contacted the USCG to expand the available information regarding arrests in international waters and questions regarding the conditions under which the apprehended are proceeding. After an exchange of emails and until the moment of publication there was no further response from the US entity.
The arrests, the hundreds of tons seized and the emphasis that the United States makes in the fight against drug trafficking on the high seas find its explanation that the sea route is the most optimal for drug trafficking organizations to move considerable amounts of drugs from South America to the United States. United.
Daniel Rico, a Colombian expert in organized crime and director of the C-Analysis consultancy, explains that transporting substances controlled by the Pacific Ocean can be considered the ” queen of the routes ” due to various factors.
The main ones have to do with the fact that the logistics and costs of moving large shipments of drugs by sea are lower than those required by air.
“It is difficult to quantify, but it is by far your best alternative. Large drug trafficking structures move cocaine out there. The Pacific naval route is optimal because the costs are lower, the volume of cargo is higher and the risk is lower “, explains the researcher.
Rico indicates that, for example, there are submersibles and speedboats that are capable of carrying up to five tons of cocaine.
” The other routes are also profitable, but they are more expensive and difficult, ” he says in reference to moving cocaine in small planes after transporting it over long distances by land or camouflaging it on commercial flights or cargo containers.
That is why, he adds, that 40% of Colombian coca plantations have moved to the surrounding regions to the Pacific coast, when they were previously at the other end of the country.
Regarding the participation of Ecuadorian fishermen in the drug delivery chain, the researcher explains that the vessels that leave the ports of Colombia first go south to reach the high seas maritime currents that allow them to reach Central American and North American waters.
“They do not go in a straight line but they make a kind of ‘L’ in the fishing zone around the Galapagos Islands. That part, in addition, has become a point of supply and fuel loading,” says Rico.
Katherine David’s wife, a detained Ecuadorian fisherman, knows several wives and mothers who are in their situation.
She manages to feed her two children by washing clothes, painting nails or “whatever appears”, while hoping that her husband will be repatriated and serving his sentence in Ecuador.
” So at least I can see him instead of talking to him for a few minutes every 15 days, ” says the interviewee.
The nine years of David’s sentence seem like an eternity to the woman. Your case is not the only one.
In fact, Parametry researcher Max Paredes tells BBC Mundo that Ecuador does not know the real number of compatriots who are imprisoned abroad.
“I think it is a very strong weakness of the country not knowing where they are and how many they are. We have built a baseline of 203 families, but surely there are many more,” he says.
Paredes adds that, according to data from the Organization of Women of Prisoners Abroad, there are around 1200 Ecuadorians who are imprisoned in the United States and other countries such as El Salvador.
In the last two years, only 119 managed to be repatriated from US prisons, while none of those sentenced in Central American countries managed to return yet.
It is a very big paradox, says Daniel Rico, who points out that many real drug lords receive lesser penalties than fishermen receive.
“The weakest part is hit, which is the one that tries to get out of poverty when entering a drug trafficking network, ” says the researcher.
Rico indicates that it is worth asking if it is worthwhile for US justice to prosecute these smaller chain operators or if the US It should focus on the real leaders of the business.
“The great drug traffickers who have extradited the United States have gone there, negotiated their sentences and returned to Colombia two or three years later to reactivate their drug trafficking networks,” he says.
This happens, says the analyst, because “they are people who have bargaining power in money, contacts, networks, while a poor fisherman has none of that and ends up paying much longer sentences.”
“It is the great paradox of the system,” he concludes.