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13 de Julio del 2021
Lectura: 12 minutos
13 de Julio del 2021
Redacción Plan V
The 'Ndrangheta also operates in Ecuador's ports

3.2 tons of drugs mixed with animal feed in Guayaquil seaport was the last major capture of 2019. Photo: El Universo

'Ndrangheta is the mafia of Calabria, the southern tip of the Italian peninsula, the largest criminal organization in the world, and according to investigators consulted by Plan V, it also operates in Ecuador's ports. The Calabrians control the importation of cocaine from Latin America to Europe, using legal fronts and perishable products such as Ecuadorian shrimp.

Blind hook is the name given to one of the methods used to export drugs from Ecuador through the country's ports. This system consists of placing cocaine in the containers of perishable products that are exported to Europe, which in police jargon is known as "contaminating" a shipment. Last Monday, February 10, in the Port of Guayaquil, 3.2 tons of cocaine were captured by anti-narcotics police dogs in one of the ships that was destined for the old continent. Between 2016 and September 2019, 62.6 tons of cocaine were seized in Ecuador's seaports.Forty of these tons left the main port of the Pearl of the Pacific (as Guayaquil is known). 

On February 10 of this year, a shipment of more than three tons of cocaine, the first of 2020, was captured at the Maritime Port. Photo: La Hora Newspaper

The largest seizure took place in December 2016. At that time, Diego Fuentes, Minister of the Interior in charge, reported at a press conference, along with Police General Nelson Villegas, then national director of Antinarcotics, that during intelligence work it was determined that four containers, bound for Belgium, could be "contaminated" with alkaloid.

The manual inspection by police agents and the action of the Stano dog gave a positive alert for the presence of drugs in a shipment of 3,200 sacks of salt in grain. Field testing determined that 474 bags were mixed with cocaine. Each weighing approximately 25 kilos, giving a total of 11.85 tons of cocaine.

The representative of the exporting company was arrested for this case as part of the investigative management tasks. 

7.5 tons of cocaine were hidden in 500 sacks of shrimp feed, ready to be "exported" from the port of Guayaquil. Photo: Ministry of Interior

A story of the 'Ndrangheta in the port of Guayaquil

Con Based in southern Italy, the Calabrian mafia controls the world's major ports, especially those in Europe. It does so to ensure the handling of cocaine trafficking to the Old Continent by means of maritime transport, not necessarily clandestine, which transports cocaine from South America in export containers, especially fruit and other perishables.

According to investigators from the OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project) with whom Plan V spoke, 70% of inter-oceanic trafficking takes place in containers leaving "legally" from ports such as Ecuador and others in Latin America. Traffickers use perishable products, such as fruits, flowers, seafood, to facilitate a quick exit of the goods at the ports of arrival: as they are products that can be damaged or ripen, importing companies and insurers press for quick inspections and if they find drug shipments of smaller amounts, the departure of the entire load is not stopped, under penalty of lawsuits to the control authorities if the products are affected. And it is a complex issue for maritime and port authorities, because according to investigators, drug trafficking mafias have between 20 to 30 routes open simultaneously.

Mexican journalist Ana Lilia Perez, in her book Seas of Cocaine, points out that the sea is the central element of drug trafficking and that the "drug traffickers' highway" is at the 10th Parallel, north of the Earth's equatorial plane. Considering that South America is ground zero for cocaine, if traveled eastward as a straight highway, this route would cross 25 countries from Costa Rica to the Marshall Islands. It spans three oceans, numerous seas and bays and is a favorite of drug traffickers because this sea route offers a wide range of possibilities to travel anywhere in the world, through waters with little surveillance and minimal chances of arrest.


One of the pieces of evidence confirming that the Italian members of the Calabrian Mafia operate in Ecuador or have strong connections with this country, was the investigation published on the OCCRP portal, called The Cocaine Cowboys.

Based on a judicial investigation, the journalistic report had as documentary sources two indictments in courts in Venice and Milan, as well as interviews with detectives and prosecutors who worked on several investigations in 2015. The inquiry followed the trail of Antonino Vadalà, a member of the Calabrian mafia.Known as 'Ndrangheta, it has its original and strategic center in the region of Calabria, called Reggio Calabria, the southern Italian province where Vadalà's family comes from and where the 'Ndrangheta emerged as a mafia organization at the end of the 19th century and today is considered the strongest on the planet.

Investigators located Vadalà, during a meeting with another mafia leader and his advisors, in a shopping mall in Venice, the port into which Vadalà planned to import cocaine shipments from Ecuador and Peru. The OCCRP report said that the city's port had less surveillance than Calabria's and had two other advantages: it was not dominated by any mafia clan and it was the base of operation of Francesco Giraldi, the local importer with whom Vadalà wanted to partner.

I want to send 200, 300 kilos at a time," Vadalà threw at Giraldi in the meeting. "Do you understand? Minimum 200, 300." Vadalà wanted to be sure that Giraldi, the importer, had the capacity to organize large shipments of fruit or other legal goods from Latin America, in which significant volumes of cocaine could be camouflaged.

Vadalà was particularly interested in trading legal goods from Ecuador and Peru, countries where he had a network of contacts and from where he planned to secure drug supplies.

From there, the drugs would arrive in Venice through Giraldi's import company (via a purchase order from Vadalà's Slovakian companies) and then the cocaine could end up either in Italy or Slovakia, according to the Cocaine Cowboys report.

By April 2015, six months after the meeting in Venice, Vadalà and Giraldi were ready to begin their cocaine shipments.

It was imperative to have legitimate front businesses: the more money and legal goods flowing, the less likely the shipments would be randomly checked by customs.

Vadalà was well prepared. In one conversation he said, "I have commercial activities, I have companies. I once bought 20 million euros worth of meat [in Latin America] through real contracts. I supplied Ankara, the Turkish state, for a year. And now I am signing a contract with Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil." The police "can verify everything," he added. "Financial flows? I have everything in order."

Investigators concluded that Vadalà planned to open a company in Ecuador to buy products that would hide the real purpose of his new route to Venice. The idea was that the containers would stop in Venice, where the drugs would be unloaded and the legal merchandise would continue on to Slovakia. Another option was for the containers to go directly to Slovakia, get customs clearance there and then be reshipped to Venice.

On that day in 2014 in Venice, Vadalà and his associates wanted to secure their slice of Europe's lucrative cocaine market. At the meeting, they discussed all sorts of practical details: how to organize the shipments, how they would be shipped, who would be their suppliers in Latin America.

But he did not end up doing well in the drug trafficking operation from Guayaquil.  In the main port Vadalà knew people who could camouflage cocaine in containers, which also carried frozen shrimp. Vadalà used his Slovakian company Terra Real to wire €175,000 to Giraldi's company in Venice and then added €53,000 in cash. The money was used to buy the shrimp and 70 kilos of cocaine.

But when the container arrived in Venice on May 16, 2015, only the shrimp were there. Apparently there was a miscommunication and they did not ship the cocaine, investigators say.

The drug highway and an impenetrable organization

Like many drugs leaving Ecuadorian ports, as well as other countries in the continent, the explosive merchandise crosses the 10th Parallel and lands in a triangle of the historic European ports of Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg, in northern Europe. The first was until 2004 the largest in the world, only surpassed later by the economic takeoff of Asia, so that the ports of Singapore and Shanghai are now the most important in the world. 

Port of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, the third largest in the world.

Researchers told Plan V that they have traced the criminal patterns of the port mafias by following the historical migration and their original and traditional structure, which has not changed in centuries. The center is the clan or family, and from this always follows family relationships in control of the business. The clan expands to the territory, to the so-called mandamento (which in Italy is a supramunicipal administrative district intermediate between the district and the municipality) and then to the province.

Thus, the Calabrian Mafia families can set up in any part of the world with their own trusted personnel, who are part of the family by blood or affinity. The family is impossible to infiltrate and the investigators have reached it thanks to the linking of maps, birthplaces, weddings, deaths, baptisms; like a family album that can be fully known only if all the photographs are found and known. 

Then the money that is laundered and that is the product of drug trafficking, among other crimes, is tracked. This money is poured into investments in restaurants, real estate, gambling and other types of games, cryptocurrency exchange and import-export companies, to continue feeding the key structure of the business. 

Moment of the capture of Sibillo, alias "Baby boss" of the Calabrian mafia. Photo DW.

Investigators are aware that this mafia becomes impenetrable by enforcing strict family codes, such as that of silence, absolute loyalty to the family, recruitment by blood relations, and unrestricted respect for religious and cultural traditions. The Calabrian mafia is feared precisely for this reason and these conditions make it a closed structure with extraordinary family cohesion. Only the capture of one of its leaders, allowed to establish some revelations.

The Calabrian mafia follows the same patterns all over the world. It has brokers and intermediaries in the main ports where the cocaine business feeds its profits, which are estimated between 30 and 40 billion dollars a year. Its operational units have their logistic bases in the ports, be it Antwerp or Guayaquil, and establish import and export networks of flowers, fruits, machinery, wine, salt, shrimp feed...  The story of Antonino Vadalà is a sample of how the 'Ndrangheta, the largest criminal organization in the world, operates.

The 'Ndrangheta also operates in Ecuador's ports



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