Could Ecuador become a major coca-growing country like its neighbors, Colombia and Peru?
That fear was expressed this week by Ecuadorean and U.S. counter-narcotics officials as this Andean country reported an alarming increase in illegal coca crops destroyed this year along its northern border with Colombia.
The crops that Ecuador's military and police have seized so far this year, about 100 acres in a remote and mountainous part of Esmeraldas state in northwestern Ecuador, are dwarfed by the tens of thousands of acres grown in Colombia, the world leader in coca cultivation and cocaine production.
But Ecuador's anti-narcotics police chief, Marco Rivadeneira, said in an interview Wednesday that coca farming had reached new heights and that the increased seizures were a sign that leftist guerrillas who control the drug trade in southern Colombia were "probing" his country.
"The narco organizations see Ecuador as a propitious territory in which to realize their trafficking," Rivadeneira said, noting that Esmeraldas shares the border with the Colombian state of Narino, a coca farming and processing center.
Nearly 100 tons of cocaine have been seized in Ecuador or its maritime territory since January 2005, officials here say. "Mules" smuggling cocaine on flights from Ecuadorean airports to Europe and the United States are routinely busted. Drug-related violence here has risen.
Despite its location between two countries known for coca farming, Ecuador had until recently avoided the curse of large-scale coca cultivation and processing that has troubled Colombia to the north and Peru to the south.
But Ecuador in recent years has taken on a bigger role as a global transit channel for Colombian cocaine.
And experts point out that Colombia started out as a way station for Peruvian and Bolivian cocaine in the 1980s, before morphing into a farming and processing center.
The late Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar made his initial fortune by flying cocaine into Colombia from Peru and Bolivia, long before large-scale coca cultivation came to Colombia.
U.S. officials here say rising levels of cocaine trafficking and violence can be attributed to an overflow effect of Plan Colombia, the aid program funded by the United States that has squeezed the Colombian gangs that control the supply chain.
At least 150 tons of cocaine, more than a quarter of Colombia's annual production, pass through Ecuador en route to U.S. and European markets, counter-narcotics officials say.
Ports in and around Manta and Guayaquil are routinely used by Colombian traffickers as points of embarkation.
In addition, processing appears to be on the rise.
Ecuadorean police this year shut down two large labs, one in the Amazon region near the Colombian border, and the other south of Guayaquil, near Peru. Each was capable of producing up to 4 tons of cocaine a month.
U.S. drug enforcement officials describe Ecuador's cooperation in combating cocaine trafficking as "highly satisfactory," a surprise to those who feared that new leftist President Rafael Correa would follow the example of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who two years ago ended his country's anti-narcotics cooperation with the United States.
Correa had campaigned on a promise to not renew the U.S. military's lease of an air base in Manta, used as a hub for regional drug-surveillance flights.
Ecuador has led 13 counter-narcotics operations in 2007 under Correa's administration, up from an average of three or four in other years, said a U.S. government official based here, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. government is backing those efforts with cash, hardware and detection assets, including X-ray machines and 90 drug-sniffing dogs.
The United States has also given Ecuador 120 military and surveillance vehicles with which to patrol its border with Colombia.
"The cooperation is important to both our countries, especially to the United States, since it is there where the demand for these drugs is created," Rivadeneira said.