What's happening in Ecuador?

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By ANA CLAUDIA PAES*

The public security crisis and the murder of Fernando Villavicencio

The death of Villavicencio

Fernando VillavicencioEl Movimiento Construye), investigative journalist and candidate for the presidency of Ecuador, was assassinated on August 09, 11 days before the presidential elections. Fernando Villavicencio – one of the representatives of the Ecuadorian right – who oscillated between fourth and fifth place in the electoral polls, was shot during the exit of an electoral rally in Quito and did not resist – in addition to him, nine other people were injured.

The attack, which took place in the afternoon at a public event, opens the door to a series of questions still unanswered: Why was the murder staged at a widely publicized event so close to the elections? Why in broad daylight? In addition, a video supposedly recorded by members of the faction Los Lobos, was published on social networks and assuming responsibility for the murder of the journalist – in the content posted on Twitter (X), the faction not only took the blame for the crime against the life of Fernando Villavicencio, but also stated that the attacks will continue against politicians corrupt, who do not keep their promises – as relations between politics and organized crime in the country become increasingly strong.

However, this past Thursday (August 10th), another video was posted, by men who also claimed to be members of the Los Lobos, ensuring that the faction had nothing to do with Wednesday's events. Although the authorities have not officially commented on the connection between the murder and the faction, Los Lobos it is the second largest criminal organization in Ecuador and, according to government reports, is one of the main responsible for fomenting violence in the country.

The chaotic context that surrounds the crime against the life of the presidential candidate, added to the indications of involvement of one of the biggest gangs in the country and the worldwide media attention, indicates that those involved in the attack sought to make the death spectacular, even if it was not know the reasons. In addition, the conditions that made the crime possible need to be taken into account, in addition to those directly involved in the homicide, there is also a flawed security structure and – according to some experts –, even conniving, which resulted in the success of the attack.

The death of Fernando Villavicencio shocked the world, yet it represents only a small part of a long-standing crisis in Ecuadorian history. The issue of public security in Ecuador and the involvement of criminal factions in politics have significantly worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic, and are related to the new drug trafficking routes of the Mexican cartels and the increasingly close connection they have with the nation's criminal organizations. Violence in the country reaches increasingly high levels and attacks and rebellions linked to local gangs have become alarmingly recurrent, as well as retaliation by the government.

Despite the crime, President Guillermo Lasso (CREO movement) assured that the elections, which will take place on August 20, will continue. With the murder of Fernando Villavicencio, Guillermo Lasso decreed a state of exception in the country – which allows the Armed Forces to take to the streets to help and support the work of the police –, in addition, the president is authorized to suspend some rights of the population, such as freedom of movement, assembly and information. This constitutional mechanism restricts campaign freedom and, when used in the final stretch of the elections, can greatly disrupt the next steps of the other candidates. It is not the first time that Guillermo Lasso has used this constitutional device in 2023. In July of this year, the head of state decreed a state of exception in prisons after an uprising in the Guayaquil Penitentiary.

 

The public security crisis and drug trafficking

The Ecuadorian public security crisis is multifactorial. Ecuador is currently one of the poorest countries in Latin America, food and social insecurity and low levels of education are known driving agents for the increase in crime in a nation. In addition, state corruption, another crisis that has been faced for years, also encourages organized and institutionalized crime. However, in recent years, drug trafficking has emerged as the most significant reason for the public security crisis in the Andean territory.

According to the UN in the 2022 World Drug Report – Ecuador was the third country with the most drug seizures and has established itself as one of the key points on the international route for trafficking illicit substances. Adding to all the weaknesses that the nation already found in the sphere of social security, the criminal factions linked to drug trafficking expanded throughout the nation. Since 2021, Ecuador has been facing a worrying public security crisis, in which Homicide levels in the country have skyrocketed. In order to understand the current situation in the country, it is necessary to understand the position that the nation occupies in the flow of international drug trafficking – mainly, cocaine trafficking.

 

the coke route

Historically, Ecuador has always been present in the geographic trajectories of Latin American drug trafficking, even if it was not a key point of this coca geopolitics. The country is located between Colombia and Peru, the largest cocaine producers in the world, according to the UNODC report. However, Ecuadorian territory did not function as a drug storage point, only as a strategic point in the cocaine distribution itinerary.

In recent years, the production of this substance has greatly increased in the Andean countries bordering Ecuador, leading the governments of these nations to seek international help. Colombia, in turn, spent years trying to control the internal situation and, with the help of the United States – which had political interests in the region -, trained and equipped its police to act against the Colombian drug trafficking forces. However, just as governments have tightened their international relations networks within the scope of the “war on drugs” to contain organized crime, the cartels responsible for organizing Latino drug trafficking have also become internationalized.

In 2016, the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with one of the largest in Latin America, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - FARC. With the demobilization of the FARC in the last five years, the Mexican cartels took over the space left open by the former hegemonic faction in the region. As the areas previously controlled by the FARC came under the tutelage of the Colombian authorities, new strategies became necessary to enable the distribution of Latin American cocaine to the world – mainly to the United States and Europe.

Ecuador, due to its geographic location, port infrastructure and dollarized economy (together with weak financial control mechanisms), became the perfect location for international drug trafficking gangs, who found the small country the ideal habitat to store, export and launder money related to illegal trade.

Since then, local factions have fortified their bases in Esmeraldas – a city on the border with Colombia, and Guayaquil – a port city, responsible for receiving and exporting most of the country’s drugs – to organize Ecuador’s role in these new international trade routes. of illicit substances. Two rival gangs, Los Lobos e Los Cocheneros, became the main highlights in the flow of drug trafficking in the region. According to government authorities, these criminal organizations are financed by two of the main Mexican cartels, respectively, the Jalisco Nova Geração and Sinaloa cartels.

With the financial and military support of Mexican factions – who were interested in continuing to export ever-increasing amounts of cocaine to the rest of the world – organized crime related to coca expanded rapidly in Ecuador, without the authorities being prepared to deal with the growth of this illegal activity, since the nation had never been the focal point of the coca route before the fall of the FARC.

Since 2018, the country has become increasingly violent, particularly in the Guayaquil region – the epicenter of crime in this territory. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, with the economic, social and political crisis worsening, this wave of violence has spread with force throughout Ecuador. With social vulnerability rates skyrocketing as a result of the pandemic, many young people were recruited by criminal factions, increasing the activity and control of these organizations and multiplying crime rates throughout the territory. In 2022, the rate of serious crimes rose exponentially, Guayaquil became the scene of several massacres, both between rival gangs, Los Lobos e Los Cocheneros, as between the police and members of these associations.

 

prison crisis

In 2021, Ecuador faced the beginning of a situation that continues to be repeated until the present day: the massacres inside the penitentiaries. With increasingly high levels of violence, occupancy rates in Ecuadorian prisons continue to rise. In February 2021, around 75 prisoners died in a series of simultaneous rebellions in three prisons in the country - one of them, located in Guayaquil -, caused by the confrontation of criminal factions in search of gaining control in the jails. In September and November of the same year, respectively 119 and 58 prisoners were killed under State custody, in the Guayaquil penitentiary and, according to the authorities, the confrontation was also related to the rivalry between the main Ecuadorian criminal organizations.

Tensions among the prison population did not cease in 2023, in July of this year, 31 prisoners were dismembered and burned in the Guayaquil penitentiary – and another 14 were injured. Once again, the Armed Forces were called in by the government – ​​which again declared a state of exception – to contain the situation using the same inefficient formula: violence and repression, blaming criminal organizations for the prison war.

However, the vulnerable situation of prisoners is not just about rivalry between factions, many rebellions among prisoners also start from allegations of hunger and mistreatment, in addition to the unhealthy conditions they face in the overcrowded cells of penitentiaries. The State itself, with a bad crisis management policy and the constant disrespect for human rights, makes prisons a veritable concentration of time bombs – which have exploded several times since 2021.

Residents around prisons also suffer. With the massacres and rebellions, it becomes unsustainable to carry out basic day-to-day activities. Many businesses are unable to open, schools do not feel safe to receive children, workers are afraid to leave their homes and sleep deprivation is a constant, after all, during the days when prison rebellions last, the noise of gunshots and the smoke from the fires makes it impossible for residents nearby to sleep.

Conflicts do not just occur within prison confines, attacks and gang violence take shape within prisons, but extend throughout the country. Bomb explosions and stray bullets, previously concentrated in the daily lives of residents of Guayaquil and Esmeraldas, the major centers of serious crimes, have spread throughout the state. In addition, Ecuador's economy, already deeply shaken since 2015, has no chance of rebuilding itself amidst the scenario of generalized panic, in which citizens are constantly unable to leave their homes to start their workdays.

 

The role of the Lasso government during the crisis

Since taking office in 2021, Guillermo Lasso has faced both political instability and disapproval of his government and the social security crisis in Ecuador. Guillermo Lasso's main strategy is to encourage police repression and rely on the use of the Armed Forces to assist the police when necessary. At the end of his first year in office, in November 2021, Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency to combat prison riots and high crime rates.

However, the president used the state of emergency as crutches, as this political mechanism allows for higher levels of repression. With the discontent of Ecuadorian society in relation to Guillermo Lasso growing, protests and demonstrations became popular throughout the country, becoming targets of repression before the eyes of the president, who used widespread fear and constitutional emergency strategies, for his own benefit.

In 2022, the situation continued to deteriorate. Just a year into his term, Ecuador reached the highest homicide rate in history and Guillermo Lasso declared a state of exception three times, in failed attempts to try to control criminal activities in the state. The year 2023, however, surpasses 2022, and the country will close murder rates for the year with about 40 deaths per 100 inhabitants. Even with the proven inefficiency of the Lasso government in fighting crime with police repression – since crimes only multiplied – the government’s strategy was maintained during 2023.

Instead of focusing on public policies to alleviate the catastrophic situation in which the country finds itself, Guillermo Lasso was more concerned with balancing himself to stay in power – amidst multiple corruption scandals and the impeachment attempt –, than actually paying attention to the construction of effective public policies to mitigate the chaos established throughout the region. Under the old “war on drugs” discourse, Guillermo Lasso not only failed to seek effective public policies and damage containment measures for the security scenario, but also continued to foment the fear of the population and outsourced the security issue to civil society. when announcing, in April of this year, a presidential decree that allowed all civilians who meet certain requirements to carry weapons (being over 25 years old and having a psychological and toxicological evaluation certificate issued by the Ministry of Health).

The measure has been widely criticized, after all, violence rates are exacerbated and there is no evidence that carrying guns is capable of reducing crime rates – Many studies prove exactly the opposite.. The measures that Guillermo Lasso took in the face of the chaotic context of social security only prove the reasons for the population's dissatisfaction with his government and demonstrate that Guillermo Lasso not only failed to contain the crisis, but was also largely responsible for perpetuating it.

 

Elections and public safety

Less than 10 days before the first round of presidential elections in Ecuador, the murder of Fernando Villavicencio becomes just another symbol of the fragility and depth of the crisis that the Ecuadorian State is experiencing – both in terms of its security and its democracy. The climate of tension and instability became even stronger in the Andean nation and there are no guarantees of security for election day, which will take place next Sunday (20), there is only the allegation of the president of the National Electoral Council that there will be redoubled security in the electoral zones, through the police and the Armed Forces.

The precarious humanitarian situation is an immediate emergency, the candidates' positions regarding social security will be decisive after Wednesday's episode. The next president will have to deal with a complex web of historical crises, made worse by Guillermo Lasso's mismanagement, which leaves behind a country that is even more divided and vulnerable than at the beginning of his administration.

It is still too early to assess how the events of last week could impact the polls on the 20th, but the death of Fernando Villavicencio could attract votes for proposals aligned with his spectrum and political ideals – which consisted of the militarization of ports, high-security prisons and strengthening of the country's military forces -, which could undermine the chances of Luiza González - the representative of the left in the elections and the candidate with the highest intention of votes - of winning the presidential race and placing Ecuador as one of the countries where the left is on the rise in Latin America.

Ana Cláudia Paes is a graduate student in International Relations at UFABC.


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