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Saturday, 20 January, 2001, 13:30 GMT
Ecuador's troubled times

Ecuador's scenery draws many visitors...
Ecuador is a popular destination for UK backpackers, but the dangers of travelling in parts of this beautiful mountain country have been highlighted by the shooting of 18-year-old student Cliff Andrade by bandits.

By Jerry McDermott in Ecuador

Ecuador is in a fragile state. Democracy is weak, the economy weaker whilst the Colombian warring factions that are spilling over the border are strong, very strong.

This time last year there was a military coup that overthrew President Jamil Mahuad.

The coup was precipitated by powerful indigenous organisations, protesting against the austerity measure the president was imposing to try to tame hyperinflation, and resurrect an economy in deep recession.

But the coup leaders, under pressure from the international community, most particularly the US, handed power over to the vice president, now president, Gustavo Noboa.

But the country has seen troubled times
He is the fifth president in as many years in this volatile Andean country of 12.5 million.

President Noboa pressed on with his predecessor's policies and speeded up one of Mr Mahuad's key programmes, the adoption of the US dollar as the national currency, completed in September last year.

The economy has stabilised, buoyed up by high oil prices, Ecuador's main export, but another problem looms, one set to get worse.

Last week Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries fought in Ecuador, the first such battle between Colombia's illegal armies of the left and right on Ecuadorean soil.

Yet authorities here fear there is worse to come.

Ecuador borders the Colombian province of Putumayo, better know as the coca-growing heartland of Colombia, where there are enough acres under drug cultivation to produce more than 200 tons of cocaine every year.

Marxist guerrillas and right wing paramilitaries are fighting for control of the area and its lucrative crop.

Meanwhile, the US has granted some $1.3bn of mainly military aid to help the government advance the war against drugs, the majority of which will be deployed in Putumayo.

Kidnap and murder

Already thousands of peasants have fled the escalating violence, crossing into Ecuador, which is ill equipped to deal with them and can ill afford to help them.

With the Colombian influence has come a wave of crimes all too common in Colombia: kidnapping and terrorism.

In October last year eight foreign oil workers were kidnapped. A ransom has been issued for their release.

Colombian guerrillas are suspects, as they are responsible for the majority of the 3000 kidnapping every year in Colombia, the ransoms of which they use to fund their 37-year war against the state.

In December an oil pipeline in northern Ecuador was bombed three times.

Twelve people were killed in a bus that was passing when one of the bombs detonated.

Analysts again saw the shadow of Colombian guerrillas who blew up pipelines in Colombia more than 100 times.

Crime is on the rise in Ecuador, home to the Galapagos Islands that inspired Darwin's theory of evolution and locals are afraid that Colombia's shadow may soon eclipse Ecuador's growth and stability.

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See also:

13 Dec 00 | Americas
Ecuador oil pipe blast kills six
12 Oct 00 | Americas
Oil workers kidnapped in Ecuador
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