WASHINGTON - Throughout two decades of revolt, murder and drug production along the Andean spine, Ecuador has remained a surprising haven of peace and relative order.
Its indigenous tribes are as poor and disenfranchised as those of its neighbors. Its high yunga valleys are just as friendly to the coca shrub that produces cocaine. Its government is as precarious and prone to corruption. But somehow Ecuador has avoided the coups, insurgencies and extensive cocaine production that have racked Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.
But the Ecuadorean government, U.S. officials and Latin American specialists fear that a multibillion-dollar, Washington-backed plan to root out drug production in Colombia could destabilize Ecuador and possibly set it up as the next major narcotics source in South America.
"Ecuador justifies the most concern and demands the most attention" of all countries bordering Colombia, said Michael Shifter, a democracy specialist at Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank focused on Latin America. "Ecuadoreans are deeply concerned about the prospect of growing violence and refugee flows from Colombia."
Shifter noted that Ecuador would face threats from Colombian turmoil even without the coming anti-drug initiative, called Plan Colombia. But U.S. officials and Ecuadoreans believe that Plan Colombia raises the risks of disruption for Quito, although they disagree on the degree of threat.
U.S. intelligence reports confirm local accounts of recent incursions into Ecuador by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the rebel group that finances itself by extorting money from the coca industry. The guerrillas evade border security, store weapons and exact taxes on local oil wells, according to humanitarian groups and Ecuadorean officials.
Three weeks ago, Colombian Economics Minister Augusto Ramirez Ocampo said coca cultivation was spreading into Ecuador and that Ecuadorean factories were supplying the dynamite used in FARC terror attacks. Colombian refugees have also been passing into Ecuador, according to United Nations officials, although the officials dispute accounts putting the number as high as 5,000.
Governments and agencies have mobilized to reduce the threat to Ecuador, but independent Andean experts are skeptical that the measures will be sufficient.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has opened an office in Colombia's Putumayo province in case of population displacement.
Ecuador intends to create a special military unit to guard its border. A month ago, the government announced plans to designate the border an emergency zone before reversing course, deciding that an emergency decree might create panic.
Much of the recent instability and precautionary measures along the border stem from Congress' approval last month of $1.3 billion in extra U.S. aid to battle Colombian drug production.
On top of the $300 million annually that Washington already gives Bogota, the money will put deadly teeth into Colombia's drug war by bolstering military training and providing 60 armed helicopters. As evidence of Washington's concern for spillover effects, the appropriation contains $20 million for Ecuadorean crop substitution and military development.
Colombia has promised to devote $4 billion to Plan Colombia.
The initiative will hatch in coming months, when a powerful force of Blackhawk and Huey helicopters, fumigation planes and jungle patrols will descend on the lush Putumayo region. The force, staffed by Colombians and trained by several hundred Americans, will poison coca fields, fight guerrillas protecting the farms and try to persuade peasants to switch crops.
U.S. and Colombian officials hope the offensive will cut cocaine shipments to the United States, stanch the flow of revenue to local revolutionaries and reduce the lawlessness and violence that have convulsed Colombian society.
But many in Washington and Quito worry about side effects.
They fear that an established pattern is about to repeat itself, that the coca lords will evade the latest crackdown by slipping across a border and spread havoc to a country that lacks the means to fight them.
It happened in Colombia, when anti-drug efforts in Bolivia and Peru led directly to a sharp rise in Colombian cocaine production and to the heightened anarchy that grips much of that nation. That might happen in Ecuador.
Besides worrying about the foreign political consequences of spreading drug production, U.S. officials are concerned about the $1.3 billion American investment. Transplantation of Colombian cocaine sources into Ecuador or elsewhere would undercut U.S. eradication efforts and refill the narcotics pipeline to American cities.
By many accounts, Ecuador is in the greatest danger of such a transfer.