Ecuador’s schools have become a sobering reflection of the country’s deepening drug problem amid student overdoses and a negative feedback cycle of dropouts dealing to their peers in school.
Following the death of a 13-year-old girl who overdosed on cocaine and sedatives last October, the Ecuadorian government has stepped up its efforts to reach out to young people in schools, but it may be an uphill battle given the prevalence of drugs in the communities these students live in.
“Drugs are present in schools, just like theft and violence, because they are present in society. All the things that are present in society are present in schools," Ricardo Loor, drugs prevention expert at the Guayaquil branch of Ecuador's drugs agency, Consep, said, according to the BBC.
While Ecuador itself is not a center of cocaine production like its neighbors Colombia and Peru, it has become a major transit route for the drug -- with coke becoming widely available at relatively cheap prices.
At the same time, young people, most often dropouts, are being drawn into the drug trade as low-level distributors to others in their age group, further exacerbating the situation.
"Cartels pay intermediaries through money and drugs. These intermediaries distribute drugs to micro-traffickers who use vulnerable groups to sell the drugs, such as boys and girls that have been excluded from the educational system," Interior Minister Jose Serrano said, according to the BBC.
In Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, local authorities are focusing on educating students about the dangers of drugs -- but not in response to the recent heavy media coverage of drug-related deaths, but rather as part of the state's ongoing anti-drug efforts.
"There hasn't been any drastic change," Monica Franco, vice minister of educational management, said, concerning the government’s policy on drug abuse and crime prevention in schools, the BBC reported. "This issue has been exacerbated by the media who are opposed to the government."
But some in the country's educational system are critical of the government’s policies and are demanding a different approach.
"The problem of drugs does not get resolved simply by a talk, workshop or contingency plan," Luis Chancay, a teacher and president of the local branch of the National Teachers Union, told the BBC. "We need to find ways to give young people future perspectives."
Last year, the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report warned: "Ecuador is vulnerable to organized crime due to weak public institutions, porous borders and corruption. ... The increasing problems of domestic drug consumption and the associated rise in crime is a growing concern."