Violence in Ecuador

Image: Margen Cero / Quito, Pichincha, Ecuador


The rise of organized crime is related to the progressive dismantling of the State and the suspension of crucial institutions

The administration of current president Daniel Noboa represents the culmination of three years marked by episodes of intense violence. Last year's electoral campaign, notoriously marked by extreme violence, came to a head with the murder of several candidates and politicians, creating a climate of widespread terror. This context of turmoil and instability is now reflected in the management of Daniel Noboa, who inherits a challenging scenario, demanding the urgent implementation of measures to reestablish order and regain society's trust.

Over the last seven years, there has been a progressive dismantling of the State and the suspension of crucial institutions, such as the Ministry of Justice, accompanied by the suppression of internal security policies. The rise of organized crime is related to these measures, culminating in the transformation of Ecuador, previously considered the second safest country in Latin America, into one of the most insecure.

Political exile in Belgium, former president Rafael Correa (2007-2017) clarified that “Ecuador has reached this point of violence after seven years of destruction and disappearance of the rule of law”. The “governments of Guillermo Lasso (2021-2023) and Lenín Moreno (2017-2021) are to blame for what is going on”, highlighted Rafael Correa, stressing “never having seen a process of destruction in a time of peace as in the Ecuadorian case” . This destruction, according to Rafael Correa, was characterized by a series of policies that undermined state structures and weakened internal security, opening space for the proliferation of organized crime in the country.

The transition from sovereign internal security to a market-based security approach is a crucial aspect to be considered. The privatization of security plays a central role in the current problem, highlighted by the inadequacy of market logic in resolving security issues.

In addition to internal issues, geopolitics plays a significant role. The strengthening of ties between Ecuador and the United States, evidenced by military cooperation agreements and joint legislation, creates an environment conducive to foreign interference. There is a possibility of US troops acting in Ecuador, violating not only the country's Constitution, but also the Latin American tradition of being a zone of “peace”.

Political environment

Ecuador, marked by historical challenges and significant changes, saw its political scenario shaped by the tree of oil in the early 2000s. Managing this resource brought economic benefits, but also challenges, highlighting the country's vulnerability to the volatility of global oil prices. commodity.

The trajectory of Rafael Correa (2007-2017), former president in exile in Belgium for lawfare, exemplifies the divisions and tensions in Ecuadorian politics. His government, characterized by social advances, faced controversies and criticism, while his successor, Lenín Moreno (2017-2021) implemented a shift to the right, distancing himself from Rafael Correa's progressive policies.

Guillermo Lasso assumed the presidency in 2021, after winning the elections, and has since faced a challenging political scenario, marked by tensions and significant opposition. The use of “death crusade”, a constitutional device, which resulted in the dissolution of the National Assembly in May 2023, stands out as a crucial point in this turbulent period.

The dissolution of parliament was perceived by many as a political strategy to confront the opposition and consolidate government control, worsening pre-election tensions. Guillermo Lasso, who never held a parliamentary majority and faced calls for impeachment, sought a reconfiguration of the political environment through the calling of early general elections.

The arrival of Daniel Noboa as president, resulting from these early elections, brought with it a renewed scenario of electoral competition. However, the political situation has not stabilized, and the country is currently facing an escalation of violence associated with criminal gangs linked to drug trafficking.

Confluence of crises

The current Ecuadorian crisis is the result of the confluence of three major turbulences. The first of these was the crisis of commodities, which began in 2014 and significantly impacted the country's economy. Ecuador, historically dependent on sectors such as oil and mining, was deeply affected by the volatility in the prices of these commodities, which resulted in economic instability and fiscal fragility.

The second turmoil was the Covid-19 pandemic, which proved devastating for Ecuador, with 18 million inhabitants and around 67 thousand deaths, with Guayaquil being the epicenter of the tragedies. In addition to the direct impact on public health and the horror scenes with hundreds of bodies in the streets, the pandemic triggered an economic, social and political crisis, encouraging the recruitment of young people by criminal factions and boosting crime rates throughout Ecuador.

The third turmoil refers to the aforementioned government of Guillermo Lasso, elected with a minority in Congress. Faced with a legislature with considerable power, Lasso faced a clear contradiction. In a dynamic in which Congress has great influence and the president has the prerogative to dissolve it, political tension has further complicated the effective response to pre-existing crises.

Advance of extremism

President Daniel Noboa's recent categorization of 22 transnational organized crime groups as terrorist organizations and “belligerent non-state actors” raises concerns about the misapplication of the concept of terrorism.

It is important to highlight the possibility of the emergence of a new leader with characteristics similar to Nayib Bukele, personified by Daniel Noboa, given the conditions presented by the president of El Salvador. Since his ascension to office, Bukele has challenged the foundations of the Republic, posing a threat to the maintenance of the rule of law. The country faces a reality in which more than 1% of the population is incarcerated, accompanied by a sequence of authoritarian measures.

The warning about the emergence of a new “Bukele” in Ecuador highlights the concern about a potential authoritarian regime and concentration of power, warning of the dangers associated with the erosion of democratic institutions and the rule of law. Prudence in implementing measures to combat organized crime is crucial to prevent abuses and preserve fundamental democratic principles.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie) attributes the crisis to the radicalization of neoliberal policies that destroy the State and increase inequality. The “destruction of state institutions, incapable of responding effectively”, is pointed out as a contributing factor to the recruitment of young people by organized crime.

White card

The current crisis, marked by a wave of violence, led President Daniel Noboa to declare a “State of exception”, mobilizing the Armed Forces and the National Police to confront transnational criminal groups. The escalation of violence, with gang leaders such as “Fito” and “El Savage” fleeing, requires energetic responses to reestablish order and security.

However, the imposition of the “State of exception” raises reflections on the political and social implications of this act. Elections in a climate of violence like last year's Ecuadorian election tend to favor the right, with Salvadoran President Bukele as an example. The tightening of laws and the use of exceptional measures, such as the overt presence of the army on the streets and the suspension of constitutional prerogatives, configure a scenario that can be interpreted as an expression of the right-wing movement in Latin America.

Daniel Noboa, serving a 17-month buffer term until May 2025, is faced with the challenge of dealing with the issue of violence, which became pressing during his government. For right-wing sectors, this crisis represents a prerogative for military presence on the streets, the suspension of constitutional prerogatives and even the granting of prior amnesty. This situation, with characteristics of dictatorship, signals a worrying authoritarian drift and reinforces the trend of political hardening in the region.

The opposition, led by the Citizen Revolution (RC) bench, supported the emergency measures, highlighting the need to confront mafias and criminal gangs. In this critical context, former President Rafael Correa's unconditional support for President Daniel Noboa's actions is notable. Correa, currently in exile, emphasized the importance of joining efforts to overcome the “internal war” in which the country finds itself, corroborating the measures taken by Noboa to reestablish order and face imminent challenges, which include post-pandemic economic recovery and the search for political stability.

The call for national unity, supported by sectors of the opposition and international support from countries such as Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Cuba and Bolivia, highlights the seriousness of the situation.

The complexity of the situation demands a detailed investigation of three questions that help decipher the fundamental elements of this multifaceted crisis.

Gangs and the rise of violence

The security crisis in Ecuador has reached its peak in the last three years, recording an all-time high number of homicides in 2023. With more than 7.878 deaths, only 584 cases were resolved, highlighting an alarming situation. The country has emerged as an important regional center for drug storage, processing and distribution, strengthening more than 20 active criminal gangs.

These gangs, like Air shipments are the most efficient if you need your cargo or documents to arrive quickly and securely. Choneros, Wolves, Lizards and Tiguerones, play a crucial role in the growing violence, connecting with the large drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia. The death of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio in August last year is indicative of the ascendancy of these gangs over political control in the country, revealing a significant influence within Ecuadorian institutions and society.

The penetration of these criminal organizations is not just limited to the population, but also extends to the police and the Armed Forces, highlighting the systemic corruption that permeates the structure of the State. The escape of leaders like Adolfo Macías, known as “Fito”, and prison riots are direct symptoms of this overwhelming influence of gangs in Ecuador.

Election of Daniel Noboa

Daniel Noboa, president for just a month and a half, took office amid a looming security crisis. His proposals focused on the economy and security have won majority support from Ecuadorians, promising prison reforms, strict anti-crime measures and technological advances to combat organized crime.

However, Daniel Noboa's intentions became a catalyst for the gangs' backlash, demonstrating their ability to challenge Ecuadorian democracy. The president's quick response, declaring a state of emergency and seeking stricter measures, appears to have further inflamed gang hostility, leading to events such as the invasion of the TC television channel in Guayaquil.

The drug market and territorial conflicts

Ecuador, strategically located between Colombia and Peru, has become a crucial point in the international drug market. Approximately one-third of Colombian cocaine passes through Ecuador before heading to North America and Europe. The demobilization of the FARC in Colombia, following an agreement in 2016, boosted dissident groups and organizations linked to drug trafficking, decentralizing drug production and distribution chains.

The growing presence of international criminal organizations, such as the Mexican Sinaloa and CJNG cartels, has intensified territorial conflicts and increased violence in Ecuador. The dispute for control, combined with multiple criminal organizations from different countries, creates a complex dynamic that contributes significantly to the current crisis.

The capillarization of drug trafficking in the north of the continent brought the entry of Mexican cartels into Ecuador. The vacuum left by Colombia, resulting both from the dissolution of the FARC and the privatization of the security forces, was filled by these criminal organizations. However, the crucial aspect of this dynamic is Ecuador's dollarized economy. The use of the dollar as currency, unlike Colombia and Peru, which have local currencies, makes transactions more complex and increases Ecuador's attractiveness to international cartels.

Systemic roots

Overcoming this crisis will require not only immediate and energetic actions, but also long-term strategies that address the systemic roots of the problem. The search for stability and security in Ecuador requires an integrated approach, involving institutional reforms, international cooperation and socioeconomic measures to dismantle the structures that sustain violence in the country.

*Bruno Fabricio Alcebino da Silva He is majoring in International Relations and Economic Sciences at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC).

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