According to its President Daniel Noboa, Ecuador is currently “in a state of war.” Earlier this week, he declared a state of emergency after the leader of one of the country's two largest gangs escaped from prison. The following day, armed gang members stormed TC Television's newscast and live-streamed their hostage situation and violence to make their own announcement.
It was far from the only shocking act of violence the country suffered this week.
In a seemingly coordinated campaign Tuesday — and one with a brazenness reminiscent of Mexico's cartels of the mid-2010s or worse — gunmen stormed hospitals, businesses and universities. Violent riots led to prison takeovers, bombs were detonated in several places, and police officers and prison guards were kidnapped and murdered. At least 10 people were killed and over a hundred prison staff were taken hostage in gang attacks, including police.
It may seem like an inexplicable turnaround for Ecuador, a country that many experts, including Felipe Botero, program director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, told Vox was once an “island of peace” in an often restive region been.
But this turn toward violence didn't happen overnight in a country of 18 million upper-middle-income residents.
While there are factors that have accelerated the rise in crime in recent years, experts believe this is a story that has been nearly a decade in the making. Ecuador's security crisis is the result of years of increasing gang impunity, the influence of transnational crime groups, changes in global cocaine consumption and, above all, increasing institutional corruption.
This means that this chaos cannot be resolved overnight, even with the military action promised by President Noboa.
How Ecuador went from an “island of peace” to a crisis of this magnitude is briefly explained
For decades, Ecuador's stability and security distinguished it from its neighbors Peru and Colombia, the world's largest cocaine producers. Ecuador lay between the two countries and often acted as a drug transit country, but did not suffer from the violence and armed conflict that plagued its neighbors.
In the 1990s, Ecuador's drug trade was “controlled from the top down by the FARC” – the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the Marxist guerrilla group that waged a 50-year battle against the Colombian government – and “there wasn't much of that.” There was competition and there was actually no conflict with the Ecuadorian state,” says Will Freeman, fellow in Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It was a stable situation.”
In 2016, the FARC was largely demobilized – a historic peace process for Colombia, but which also led to a power vacuum in northern Ecuador. At the same time, cocaine demand began to change dramatically, falling in the U.S. and rising in Europe, where cocaine seizures have quadrupled since 2016, according to Freeman. “This has made port control much more important,” he says, as cocaine is loaded into shipping containers on its way to Europe. “Obviously you don’t fly small planes from Colombia to France.”
And well, Ecuador has some great ports for cocaine smugglers – notably Guayaquil on the Pacific coast, the country's largest port city and now the epicenter of the violent crisis.
Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa (center) leaves Canela Radio with a ballistic blanket in Quito, Ecuador, on January 10, 2024. Franklin Jacome/Agencia Press South/Getty Images
This shared power vacuum and massive drug trafficking opportunities invited foreign groups such as Mexican cartels and Venezuelan gangs to play a larger role in Ecuador's drug trade. Even the Albanian mafia, Freeman says, took advantage of the FARC's demobilization and flocked to Guayaquil to settle there in the 2010s.
Ecuador's two largest gangs, Los Lobos and Los Choneros, had long maintained an uneasy peace, but the killing of gang leaders in 2020 sparked a power struggle. Since then, the groups quickly splintered into factions vying for control of territories, particularly Guayaquil, says Glaeldys González Calanche, a fellow at the International Crisis Group.
Experts said these foreign criminal groups had sided with Ecuadorian gangs, further fueling the turf war. “Los Lobos are believed to be affiliated with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, while Los Choneros are believed to be allied with the Sinaloa Cartel,” she added. “Splinter groups are now engaged in fierce competition for control of domestic consumer markets and trade routes, further fueling the vicious cycle of violence.”
All of this had a frightening impact on the country.
For years, Ecuador had one of the lowest murder rates in the region, but since 2018, homicides have more than quadrupled. Bombings, assassinations and shootings have increased. When headless bodies were found on a bridge in the city of Esmeraldas in 2022, some analysts concluded that the kind of cartel violence that terrorized Mexican cities like Juárez in the 2000s had found a new home in Ecuador. Last year, a presidential candidate who reportedly received threats from local affiliates of the Sinaloa Cartel was assassinated.
While former President Guillermo Lasso tried to crack down on gangs, increased police presence and even the deployment of the military failed to curb the violence. From 2022 to 2023, the murder rate in Ecuador almost doubled.
Experts and former local officials say the government has not only failed to curb the violence but may also be encouraging it.
“State actors facilitate the activity of organized crime,” Botero says, pointing to the Attorney General’s raids on the homes of judges, prosecutors and police officers last month, leading to the arrests of dozens of officials with ties to organized crime, including even a former drug czar and a president of the Judicial Council. “The state and law enforcement agencies cannot control the crime and violence situation,” he says, because “they are involved in organized crime in the country.”
This week's crisis only underscores that point: Experts told Vox it seemed obvious that Sunday's prison escape, which triggered Noboa's emergency declaration, was carried out without a hitch; Choneros boss Adolfo “Fito” Macías fled the exact day he was to be transferred to a new maximum security prison. Then on Monday, a leader of the Los Lobos gang, Fabricio Colón, disappeared from his cell.
“The [cartels] They actually command the prisons,” says Daniela Chacón, who was deputy mayor of Quito from 2014 to 2016 and city councilor from 2014 to 2019, referring to Fito’s escape. Chacón says recent events are “a demonstration of the control and power of organizations that have already been used to running the show in recent years.”
Can Ecuador reverse course?
Noboa said Tuesday that Ecuador was in an “internal armed conflict” and issued a decree classifying over 20 gangs as terrorist groups and authorizing the Ecuadorian military to “neutralize” them.
While Noboa has declared war, Chacón says the military cannot eliminate institutional corruption, warning: “The armed response will only go far when fighting against organizations that have more money and more power and act faster than the State.” .”
A bomb squad member puts on a bomb suit to check a purse after a bomb threat was received by authorities in Quito, Ecuador, Jan. 11, 2024. Franklin Jacome/Agencia Press South/Getty Images
“The Ecuadorian people are rightly demanding effective, firm government and a state role in quelling this violence and restoring what has been a sense of peace and security for most Ecuadorians,” said John Walsh, director of drug policy in the Washington Office Latin America, but he warns that the militarization of Ecuadorian law enforcement could also bring new threats to security. Fighting organized crime in a way that disregards the rule of law, Walsh argues, “may achieve the appearance of victory in the short term, but it ultimately serves the goals of those who would destroy and co-opt the state in the first place, and that will be the same.” Let everyone be less certain.
Noboa expressed his admiration for Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and promised last week to build massive prisons in Bukele's model. Bukele was elected in 2019 on a promise to end the epidemic of gang violence that contributed to El Salvador once having the highest murder rate in the world. He achieved this largely through a campaign of mass arrests that gained him popularity domestically despite the country being criticized for widespread human rights abuses. Noboa's state of emergency, which restricts civil liberties, also appears to be a departure from Bukele's security policy: the Salvadoran president has extended a similar state of emergency since March 2022.
Walsh also points to the failure of militarized approaches in Colombia and Mexico, warning that “militarized operations put civilians at increased risk of being caught in the crossfire as both sides – the state and organized crime – seek to escalate the conflict. “
Walsh views Ecuador's crisis as a regional and international problem that is inextricably linked to the global cocaine market. Ecuador has already changed. The widespread, coordinated violence and brazen show of force by the country's gangs this week show that Ecuador has already become a new epicenter for drug cartel violence and conflict.
The violence is “starting to normalize,” says Chacón, the former deputy mayor of Quito. “There is this feeling of hopelessness that the situation is not going to change.”
Noboa's declaration of an “internal armed conflict” signals the same militarized approach that failed to curb cartel violence in Mexico and Colombia. Experts say Ecuador must first address systemic corruption and infiltration of state institutions that have allowed gangs to amass their power. And really, says Walsh, a new regional approach that addresses the international nature of the drug trade is needed to ensure that Ecuador does not continue down the spiral of violence that has destabilized its neighbors – including a complete overhaul of drug prohibition.
“We have to look at this as a tragedy that is probably not just limited to Ecuador, but may already be spreading,” says Walsh. “There is no reason to believe this will end in Ecuador.”
“That should be an extremely sobering thought,” he adds. “And rather than trying to counter these developments with the tools and strategies that have failed disastrously in the past, we need new ways of thinking and in particular the fight against drug prohibition as an enabler of the organized crime and corruption that we are supposedly trying to tackle.”
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