Who Might Have Planted Drugs into Ecuadoran Diplomatic Pouch and Why. An Attempt to Unravel the Plot

Nil Nikandrov
June 22, 2012
Who Might Have Planted Drugs into Ecuadoran Diplomatic Pouch and Why. An Attempt to Unravel the Plot
Unexpectedly, the Italian police demanded to open Ecuador’s diplomatic suitcases during a routine customs procedure in Milan. Staff from TNT EXPRESS WORLDWIDE SPAIN, the company responsible for the shipment, asked the Italian officers to pay attention to the fact that the seals placed on the suitcases by the Ecuadoran ministry of foreign affairs were intact but refrained from protesting. Similarly, Ecuadoran diplomats, who had a feeling that a provocation was brewing, reacted softly in a hope to prevent escalation. In the meantime, the police agents opened a total of 10 boxes with diplomatic labeling, from all of which they extracted plastic jars with double walls, and immediately voiced suspicion that the space in between was filled with liquid cocaine.

Reports about the incident – the sensational news that the Italian police caught Ecuadoran diplomats red-handed and discovered 80 jars loaded with 40 kg of cocaine, thus neutralizing a whole channel of drug supply from South America to Europe - momentarily leaked to the media. It was clear that the sting was launched based on serious a priori information about where the narcotics were to be found and how they were disguised, but the Italian police shared no details. The inescapable impression was that the perpetrators had been under surveillance from the outset, and it took the Ecuadoran foreign ministry time and efforts to piece together the picture of what had happened.

The plastic jars, along with other theater artifacts, were being delivered on the requests from Cristian Loor, director of an Ecuadoran troupe which planned to stage the Ruga la Tortuga show in Milan. Loor explained that he asked to have the belongings shipped via diplomatic channels to avoid the customs hassle and pledged that the show would serve to draw tourists to Ecuador and to advance the country’s environment protection agenda. The promotional jars carried the troupe’s logo and pictures of turtles unique to the Galapagos Islands. The jars, mostly Chinese-made, with coolant poured into the space between the double walls to keep beverages cold, are commonly used in Ecuador. The mystery in the case is who stuffed the jars with cocaine and what forces masterminded the plot.

Ecuador's diplomacy chief Ricardo Patino said in response that, while it would be up to the investigation to unearth the whole truth, the idea of concealing drugs in diplomatic mail which is on a regular basis inspected by police with dogs trained to locate narcotics either was reckless or grew out of far-reaching intentions, the likely motivation being to undermined the reputation of Ecuador. Evidently, the above was a reference to the objectives pursued by the U.S. intelligence community and propaganda machine, considering that R. Correa’s government steadily occupies a line on Washington’s list of enemies on pars with that of H. Chavez. The U.S. Administration is allergic to Ecuador’s ambitious social policies, push for real – not nominal – independence, and allegiance to the ALBA bloc, and was completely outraged when president Correa ruled to close a U.S. military base in the country and ordered out U.S. ambassador Heather M. Hodges, together with a bunch of CIA and DEA agents, on charges of meddling in the domestic affairs of Ecuador, inspiring a coup, and massively infusing money into opposition NGOs and groups.

It might seem for a time that the relations between the U.S. and Ecuador had reached a standstill phase, but the explanation is purely circumstantial: at the moment, Washington’s new envoy to Quito Adam Namm is in the process of getting a grip on what he is facing at the new destination. The contours of the future are an easy guess: Washington’s broad offensive against the government of R. Correa will roll on. The Ecuadoran leader warned over the past several months that “hostile forces” are scheming to overthrow him and made it clear that he would not give up without a fight. Respect for Correa is rising internationally and as of today he ranks among the cohort of defiant Latin American leaders centered around Venezuela’s H. Chavez. When the latter had to tone down his activities due to health problems, Correa emerged as the continent’s political champion when he called for a sweeping reform, if not the abolition, of the Organization of American States, enthusiastically urged his peers to scrap the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, and pressed for equipping UNASUR with its own defense subsystem.

Angering Washington no less, Ecuadoran foreign minister Ricardo Patino is determined to put the initiatives into practice. Patino’s characterization of the recent drug scandal left no doubt that he assessed it as a provocation pulled off by the U.S. intelligence community with the assistance from its agents in drug cartels. An Ecuadoran probe showed no violations by the diplomatic agency’s staff which packaged the shipment sent to Milan. Moreover, it is an established fact that the suitcases passed the inspection procedure involving specially trained dogs. Ecuador’s prosecutor general Galo Chiriboga said a probe was opened into the possible complicity of the TNT carrier in drug trafficking. The police of Ecuador considers it highly probable that drugs were put into the luggage at some point of the Guayaquil-Brussels-Madrid-Milan route via which the diplomatic suitcases were flown by a TNT aircraft.

One of the effects of the loudly advertised war on terror is that these days airline companies have to operate under tight oversight exercised by the West’s intelligence community. The companies’ own security services interlock with the CIA, DEA, and their European analogs, meaning that those are presented with ample opportunities to further their agendas – in the spheres of drug trafficking prevention or international politics - using the cooperation.

It should be also taken into account that opponents of Correa’s regime occasionally hold positions in the Ecuadoran foreign ministry, consulates, etc. The CIA worked for decades to build a network of agents in the institution and could easily forge seals or signatures as needed to put cocaine into the diplomatic suitcases. The jars worth a total of around $300 could be bought in Quito, and, as Ecuadoran technical experts verified, replacing the coolant with the drug substance must have taken minutes. The Ecuadoran police is looking into the case and a number of hypotheses on who coordinated and implemented the operation are on the table. It did not evade watchers in Ecuador in this connection that Timothy Zuniga-Brown who was Deputy Chief of the U.S. Mission in the country since 2011 had a lengthy record of serving in the U.S. embassies’ divisions which fight drug trafficking across the Bahamas and therefore could easily contribute experience to the operation. Experts see Luis G. Moreno, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, as a likely coordinator in the plot. Moreno’s personal history of fight against drug trafficking includes Nicaragua, Peru, Columbia (two missions), Panama, Haiti, and Mexico. The former and present-day colonial powers have common interests in Latin America, and Spanish intelligence agencies are known to be in close touch with the CIA and DEA, especially in dealing with the populist regimes.

Minister Patino says that the questions arising in the context of the drug story remain unanswered so far and that in some cases similar problems take decades to resolve. It is, however, immediately obvious what interests were pursued when the scandal erupted. Seven people, among them Redroban Quevedo who owns a restaurant frequented by Ecuadorans resident in Italy, and troupe director Cristian Loor, are currently in custody. Supposedly, the list further includes U.S. citizen Jean Paul Flores – he was not mentioned in the latest accounts, but those refer to a Cuban national who might be the same Flores, with the personal profile edited due to political reasons.

The pro-U.S. media repeatedly feature pictures of Quevedo and Loor chatting with Ecuadoran leader’s sister Pierina Correa. Implicating the family of the president of Ecuador could be the end goal, while Pierina Correa holds that she routinely met with many Ecuadoran emigrants worldwide, had no specific links to the above two, and would readily talk to the police over the matter.

Ecuadorian opposition and media figures notorious for their ideological connections to and financial transactions with the U.S. Embassy promptly seized the chance to demand a deeper inquiry into the scandal. A rally with slogans calling for the ouster of minister Patino and throwing around chalk dust which symbolized cocaine convened in front of the Ecuadoran foreign ministry. A fairly typical CIA and DEA scenario is unfolding, and that in itself is the best illustration of the objectives behind the scandal involving Ecuador and the jars with cocaine.