Dinghy headed to a Galapagos island
Giacomo Tognini

QUITO — Stashes of cocaine kept in boats and dinghies in the remote Galápagos Islands. Dozens of operatives transporting narcotics on rivers across the border into Colombia. Over the past three years, powerful Mexican drug cartels have systematically moved supplies and operations into Ecuador.

According to Quito-based daily El Comercio, at least four Mexican cartels have operated relatively freely in this South American country, sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, for several years, developing it into a regional logistics hub.

A report released this year by the Mexican Interior Ministry shows a vast network of financiers, security operatives, and traffickers employed by Mexican cartels to conduct their business in Ecuador. The Sinaloa Cartel, formerly led by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, now imprisoned, was the first cartel to establish roots in the country. They were soon followed by the Zetas, Familia Michoacana, and the Gulf cartel, all among the most powerful criminal organizations in Mexico.

We are used as a hub for organizing and moving drug shipments.

Cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine are the most widely trafficked drugs, and security agents have discovered a supply chain that links various points throughout the country. Narcotics are moved in boats from the Galápagos Islands to ports along the coastline, including Guayaquil, the country's largest city, before being moved in barges along Ecuador's many rivers to the border with Colombia. Once across the border, Mexican traffickers rely on their strong links to cartels in Colombia, where the transshipment continues.

Unlike its neighbors, Ecuador is not an important producer of coca leaf, from which cocaine is refined and produced. The country instead acts as a logistics center. "We aren't a cocaine producing country, we are used as a hub for organizing and moving drug shipments," Ecuador's national police chief Ramiro Montilla told El Comercio.

Ecuadorian police and counternarcotics forces have cracked down on the cartels, arresting dozens of operatives and reinforcing controls on key rivers in two provinces. But the authorities say the groups have become more brazen in their operations in recent years. In 2015, seven Mexicans were arrested on a small northern airstrip as they attempted to fly a small plane loaded with half a ton of cocaine to the United States.

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Society

Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe


BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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