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“I Get It:” Experiential Learning in Ecuadorian Narcotics Control

In the late eighties, drug trafficking into the United States from Latin America came into the spotlight with Reagan’s War on Drugs, a global campaign led by the United States aiming to reduce the illegal drug trade. 1986 saw President Ronald Reagan declare drug trafficking a national security threat, immediately amplifying national attention and resources distributed to tackling the issue. Budgets surrounding anti-narcotics assistance ballooned, just as foreign service officer Yvonne Thayer stepped into a new role as the chief anti-narcotics officer for Ecuador.

International Visitor Leadership Program logo | U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs
International Visitor Leadership Program logo | U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs

Ecuador was a small piece of a much bigger network of drug transportation, production, and sales; but it served as a key hub for the transit of coca paste out of Colombia, Bolivia, and especially Peru. Combatting the flow of drugs through the region then made Thayer’s new role in Ecuador important, all the more so in the relationships she would need to develop with her new counterparts in the Ecuadorian government.

Yvonne Thayer entered the Foreign Service after a career as a journalist, specializing in her coverage of Brazil. When she married a foreign service officer, she became exposed to the world of diplomacy and quickly joined herself. Her career focused on refugee and human rights issues, primarily in Latin America.

In this Moment, Thayer discusses her experience forming a relationship with the Ecuadorian Attorney General Medina de López on their anti-narcotics-themed trip to the United States on an International Visitor Leadership Program grant, and how an unexpected experience in the Bronx transformed Medina de López’s views on the effects of the drug trade.

Yvonne Thayer’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on July 3, 2007.

Read Yvonne Thayer’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Miranda Allegar

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“The department set up an ambitious program.”

Narcotics in Ecuador: Ecuador was smaller, less violent. It didn’t have a history of armed rebel groups and drug mafias like Colombia and Peru. It didn’t produce coca or significant quantities of cocaine. Ecuador survived by accommodating. My dad, an FBI agent from St. Paul, used to say Al Capone and the Chicago mafia had an understanding with St. Paul city authorities that as long as they didn’t engage in criminal and violent behavior, St. Paul would look the other way when they came through. St. Paul was reserved for the mob’s R&R. I think Ecuador played that kind of role. It stayed under the radar. . . .

There weren’t a lot of prosecutions or convictions of drug traffickers. Ecuadorian criminal investigators and judicial authorities were poorly paid and equipped, and likely fearful of upsetting the wrong people. . . . As soon as I arrived, I made a point of getting to know the Attorney General Gustavo Medina de López. He had authority over drug prosecutions and warrants, and along with the Interior Minister, would be instrumental in making the call on any serious anti-narcotics operations we wanted to conduct. I occasionally spoke with President Borja, mostly when Randy [Thayer’s husband and relative to the Ecuadorian Borja family] and I were invited to Borja family events, a Sunday family lunch, his daughter’s wedding at the presidential palace. President Borja knew what I was doing at the embassy and was supportive, which paved the way for my access to other senior government officials. Once I got to know Attorney General Medina de López, I invited him to visit the U.S. on an International Visitors [Leadership] Program grant. The Attorney General was trying to root out corruption in the judiciary and police and was eager to take a prestigious trip as a guest of the U.S. government. IVP grants were usually for a month. He managed to get away for two weeks. I went as his escort-interpreter, as I had with the Brazilian congresswoman fifteen years earlier.

The Department set up an ambitious program. We met with top U.S. anti-narcotics officials at the White House, the ONDCP [Office of National Drug Control Policy], State, DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration], the Pentagon, Justice, and U.S. Customs. We went to New York to visit the Coast Guard on Governors Island, and to ports to see how drug inspections were being done with dogs and sophisticated equipment. I had told trip planners that I wanted the Attorney General to see a drug treatment center, so he could see firsthand how drugs were ravaging U.S. society and why the U.S. was working so hard to reduce drug flows into our country. It wasn’t until we got to New York that the State Department called with some last minute options to visit a treatment center. I chose one run by the Catholic Church, without much thought as to the details. It turned out to be in the Bronx.

“‘I get it.’”

Radio City Music Hall (2010) | WikiMedia Commons
Radio City Music Hall (2010) | WikiMedia Commons

A big mistake: The next morning I suggested that due to the hour the subway would be faster than taking a taxi. Big mistake. The Attorney General and I had been together twenty-four hours a day for almost two weeks. We got on well and he trusted my judgment. The previous night he had wanted to go to Radio City Music Hall. I was hoping to see the recently-opened “Phantom of the Opera.” I got him tickets to see his Rockettes and managed to snag myself a last minute ticket to Phantom. He was grateful.

Anyway, we left our hotel near East 42nd Street and headed up to the Bronx by subway. The attorney general was short, compact, and fastidiously dressed, with an elegantly tailored pinstripe suit and fine matching alligator shoes and briefcase. I had lived in New York briefly but knew nothing about the Bronx or how the subway branches off. I assumed we could get off anywhere and take a cab the rest of the way. As we went further north, the passengers thinned out and onboarding riders became rougher looking. I decided we should get out. We were the only people to get out at that stop. Coming up the metal steps, we emerged into a war zone. The streets were mostly vacant with boarded up tenements covered in graffiti, cracked sidewalks, chain link fences topped with concertina wire. Piles of rubble, abandoned wrecked cars, and syringes were scattered everywhere. A few people loitered hazily in the distance. No cabs anywhere.

The Attorney General went pale. He wanted to cancel the visit and go back to the city. I looked everywhere for a cab. Finally, I hailed a gypsy cab. It brought us to a run-down building that looked almost as bad as the others, cracked windows, rusty chain link fence. The driver insisted it was the Catholic Diocese drug treatment center. I told the Attorney General to wait in the cab while I checked to make sure we were in the right place. He refused to stay in the cab alone and trotted after me, his eyes wide. The cab took off, leaving us there.

Our trip to this drug-infested neighborhood was the ultimate bonding experience. The director met us at the door and proudly showed us around the treatment center. He was clearly impressed to have the Attorney General from Ecuador there, and wanted to show us everything. He started by showing us around the center facilities, counseling sessions, and treatment rooms. He then steered us toward the clinic to see where sick and overdose cases were treated. The Attorney General clutched his briefcase to his chest and silently shook his head, but we followed obediently. The clinic looked and smelled terrible. Waiting addicts were slumped over metal folding chairs lining the corridors. The medical staff stared at the neatly-dressed Ecuadorian Attorney General with astonishment. We left soon after, the director thanking us profusely for coming before calling us a taxi. The Attorney General was silent for a good while, then said: “I get it.”

We flew back to Ecuador, where our friendship deepened. Sometimes he would host me and my family at a weekend outing at the ministry’s recreational club. He liked to play volleyball. Similarly, my police and military contacts would occasionally invite us to their clubs for games and a meal. The mounted police arranged for my sons to take horseback riding lessons with some of their kids, which we paid for. The Attorney General told everyone about his trip to the U.S., especially the visit to the treatment center. He began speaking out about the dangers of drugs and drug trafficking, and how important it was to keep Ecuador from falling victim to drugs. He proved very helpful as we moved to step up anti-drug operations and prosecutions. Eventually, we took down the biggest trafficking family in Ecuador. . . . The Attorney General was key to that.


BA in Journalism, University of Minnesota 1966–1969
MA in Public Administration, Harvard University 1988–1989
Joined the Foreign Service 1975
Quito, Ecuador—Anti-narcotics Chief Officer 1989–1992
Washington, D.C.—Human Rights Bureau, Director of Bilateral Affairs 1992–1994
Rome, Italy—U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, Deputy Chief of Mission 1997–1999