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The state of internal armed conflict permits military deployment nationwide, aimed at subduing the gangs. (Photo: Ecuador Army via X, formerly Twitter)
Monday, January 22, 2024

Can Ecuador Stop Soaring Levels of Violence?

The fight against crime faces a lack of financial liquidity.

Inter-American Dialogue

Ecuadorean President Daniel Noboa on Jan. 9 declared the country to be in an “internal armed conflict” after a surge in gang violence. Riots broke out in prisons; several people, including police officers, were killed; and gunmen stormed hospitals, universities and even a live television news program. Noboa declared a state of emergency and designated more than 20 gangs as terrorist organizations, mobilizing the military to “neutralize” them. What are the most important security measures Noboa has put in place, and do they stand a chance of stemming the tide of violence in Ecuador? What factors led to the recent explosion of gang violence? What trends in Ecuador’s gang activity or law enforcement led to the current crisis?

Eileen Gavin, principal analyst for global markets and the Americas at Verisk Maplecroft: The state of internal armed conflict permits military deployment nationwide, aimed at subduing the gangs. Plans for new ‘supermax’ prisons and other measures will be heavily contingent on funding, including from the United States. The violence is unlikely to be rapidly subdued by the security forces, which are less well-resourced to tackle organized crime than their Colombian and Mexican counterparts. Business operating risks including extortion, threats of violence and kidnapping will worsen. Gang-related crime has been bubbling up since 2019 and has exploded since the pandemic—partly for economic reasons (including rolling austerity since 2017 and a dire lack of employment opportunities) and has coincided with the expansion of major cartels in Ecuador as the local cocaine market pivoted from the United States toward Europe. Adding to a pre-existing threat posed by Albanian gangs and the Italian ‘Ndrangheta, Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel have also moved into Ecuador—albeit with less of a direct presence than in Colombia—’franchising’ their activities to local gangs. Former President Rafael Correa’s move to expel the U.S. military from its local Pacific coastal base in Manta in 2009 and end cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration left a security vacuum that criminals easily exploited. Cuts to defense and security budgets post-2017 decimated the prison service, with facilities almost completely overrun and gang leaders typically directing operations directly from inside. Ecuador’s underfunded and under-trained police have been completely unable to control the situation—with officers and judicial officials often simply bought off.

Maria Velez de Berliner, chief strategy officer at RTG-Red Team Group, Inc.: Problem-solving demands identifying the problem’s causes to decide and execute pertinent actions that eliminate the problem or make it, at least, manageable. Otherwise, actions attempted to redress consequences will fail. Noboa is now forced to deal with the consequences of a nearly collapsed narco-state whose institutional corruption metastasized into open violence, particularly in Guayaquil and in the lawless zone from Esmeraldas Province to Colombia’s Cauca Department. Noboa’s martial law decree and militarization of security and justice will not work. The ‘eliminate the enemy’ command of the military and police will make matters worse. Influential, decision-making members of the National Assembly, military, judiciary, prisons and society sold out Ecuador’s institutional democracy to drug cartels and criminal gangs from Ecuador, Mexico, Albania and the Balkans, Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela and Argentina. The escape from prison of the heads of the two major rival gangs in Ecuador, accompanied by their bodyguards, demonstrates the levels of corruption that have caused the violent uprising and the near collapse of the state. Ecuador was a tinderbox of misgovernment, uncontrolled gangs, police looking the other way and compromised institutional democracy. The ‘shoot now and don’t ask questions’ directive means the military and the police now in charge of safety and security are adjudicating the same gangs’ and cartels’ summary justice. No wonder Ecuadoreans are terrified, as is anyone who sports a tattoo with eagles, lions or serpents, making him or her a potential or actual gang member. Noboa and Ecuador are looking into the precipice of a democracy teetering on its edge and which Noboa’s State of Internal Commotion will not save.

Felipe Botero Escobar, head of the Colombia and Ecuador programs at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime: President Daniel Noboa could begin to develop a long-term strategy against organized crime. This needs to go beyond the declaration of a state of emergency and the use of the army to control the situation—measures already attempted unsuccessfully by his predecessors. Ecuador needs to implement a comprehensive, evidence-based strategy that disrupts criminal ecosystems, promotes prevention and interruption of violence at the street level, and also strengthens the resilience of the state. This includes implementing prison reform to regain control of the penal system. Three key aspects help to understand how the country arrived at the current situation. First is the intertwined nature of three criminal markets: the cocaine trade has opened avenues—through the provision of weapons and funds—allowing criminal gangs to launch operations in other violent criminal markets such as extortion and arms trafficking. The cocaine trade, arms trafficking and extortion and protection racketeering are the most prevalent criminal markets in Ecuador, according to the 2023 Global Organized Crime Index. Second, local criminal gangs have fragmented in the process of providing services to foreign criminal actors from the Western Balkans, Colombia and Mexico, leading to confrontations between factions to control territory and secure a portion of Ecuador’s criminal ecosystem. This fragmentation began in prison and has moved to the streets. Lastly, according to the Global Organized Crime Index, Ecuador’s resilience to organized crime has declined, particularly in terms of the state’s capacity to control its territory, including law enforcement capacity, a failed penal system and an allegedly co-opted judiciary.

Adrián Pérez Salazar, senior associate at Coronel & Pérez: Ecuador is in a state of war. For months, criminal organizations have carried out systematic attacks on the Ecuadorean people. The Jan. 9 attacks, however, have been unmatched. As a response, President Noboa issued a decree declaring Ecuador to be in a state of ‘internal armed conflict,’ an unprecedented measure that essentially entails treating gang members not as criminals, but rather as enemy combatants in an open war. The full legal ramifications of this decree are yet unclear, and it has yet to stand scrutiny by the Constitutional Court. Nonetheless, its effects are already palpable: this last week several military operations have been conducted nationwide, resulting in the capture of over a thousand suspected gang members. Radical measures such as these, if consistently applied, might have a significant impact in curbing cartel violence. Nonetheless, they must be coupled with structural reforms, particularly of the judiciary, which has proven to be incredibly susceptible to the corruptive effects of cartels. The factors that have led to this state of affairs have been several. Ecuador has historically had weak institutions and high levels of corruption, which have made it easy prey for cartels. More recently, the surge in fentanyl use in the United States, and its corresponding decline in cocaine consumption, have put cartels in a tough spot. This is forcing them to find alternative (and more violent) ways to finance themselves, including kidnapping and extortion.

Santiago Mosquera, head of research at Analytica Investments in Quito: Ecuador is grappling with a heightened security crisis at the start of 2024. On Jan. 8, President Daniel Noboa took decisive action by issuing an executive decree, implementing a state of emergency for 60 days, the legal maximum. This response was triggered by riots erupting in six prisons, the kidnapping of jail guards and the escape of imprisoned gang leaders. The decree empowered the deployment of military forces to engage in prison pacification. Even with an overnight curfew in place and army forces patrolling the streets, the evening of Jan. 8 remained far from peaceful. Improvised explosive devices were detonated in various parts of the country, and dozens of prisoners managed to escape, demonstrating that authorities continue to lack control over jails. The next day, conditions worsened. A group of criminals infiltrated the premises of TC, a television broadcaster in Guayaquil, and held several employees hostage, an intrusion that was broadcast live. Simultaneously, bomb threats paralyzed public and private institutions in major cities. In response, Noboa declared the existence of an internal armed conflict, designating 22 gangs as terrorist organizations. This move was a game changer, as it made gangs military targets. The effectiveness of these measures in combating the escalating violence in Ecuador remains uncertain. Despite the government’s earnest efforts, the gangs exhibit formidable power, organization and infiltration at all levels of public forces, making it challenging to predict the outcome of this evolving crisis. Meanwhile, the main economic problem the Noboa government faces is a lack of liquidity, precisely when the money needed to finance the fight against crime is on the rise.

Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue‘s daily Latin America Advisor

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