“Drugs are a waste of time. They destroy your memory and your self-respect and everything that goes along with your self-esteem.”by Kurt Cobain
Everyone worldwide witnessed the takeover of a news broadcasting channel ‘TC’ while it was live in the Guayaquil province of Ecuador. On the 28th of January, the prosecutor investigating the Hijack case was assassinated. This, however, was just a glimpse into the internal armed crisis that Ecuador is facing due to the drug cartels and cocaine trade. Once the most promising and peaceful country in Latin America, Ecuador has now become an epicentre of gang wars and collateral damage in cartel power struggles. Let’s understand how, when and what lead to internal crisis?
Situated between Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has been considered a region of peace in the continent of South America. Consensus in 2008 showed that the country was on path of overall development with indicators like homicide rate was less than 5.8 per 100,000 people in the country, poverty rate in the country was down from 35% in 2007 to 21% in 2017, increased influx of tourism etc. However, to the contrary present situation has become chaotic with homicide rate at 26.1 per 100,000, poverty has increased to 27%, gang violence, prison wars, planned assassinations, kidnapping and shootouts are a common occurrence in the region. As ever, a multitude of internal and external factors aligned resulting in the ongoing crisis.
The Power Vacuum in Drug Trade
It is a well-known fact that the Eastern region of the South American continent is a hotspot for narcotics, mainly cocaine production and distribution all over the world. The drug was mainly produced and processed in Nariño a region in Southern Columbia and transported to the Guayaquil port in Ecuador for worldwide distribution. This whole operation was controlled by a Colombian group called Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), biggest leftist rebel group in the country. However, in 2016 the organisation signed a historic peace deal with the government and surrendered all of its operations. 13,000 “fighters” of FARC surrender to the authorities, crumbled the drug empire and its informal economy, just in a span of five months, creating a power vacuum. Power vacuum has led to emergence of new gangs and their rivalry for control of the trade resulting crisis on Ecuadorian soil. The crisis, following the surrender, caught the Colombian and Ecuadorian authorities off guard.
An Unstable Government in Ecuador
According to political analyst Fernando Carrion, from the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, the turning point came when Lenín Moreno came into office in 2017. On the height of the 2016 FARC surrender, the Moreno government’s policies played a large role in the ongoing crisis. His government- primarily composed of individuals from the private sector – faced a steep learning curve. Inexperience and the implacable opposition in Congress deprived Lasso of any meaningful public policy successes as it could be gauged from then down spiral of security and economy. Budgets were cut in police, judicial and prison spending , despite interventionist policies led to increase in the number of prison inmates. Also, during the tenure of his predecessor Raffael Correra, though the crime rates had decreased his somewhat shady workings weakened the country’s judicial bodies.
COVID 19 Pandemic
In addition, spread of COVID-19 in 2020 further weakened economic and security scenario. In March-May 2020, the country registered losses of US$6.42 billion or nearly 6% of Ecuador’s nominal GDP for 2019. The pandemic and the sharp fall in oil prices had a devastating impact on the Ecuadorian economy. Economic activity collapsed by a record 12.4% in the second quarter of 2020 as compared to a 2.3% decline in the first quarter. This pushed several of its vulnerable populations into poverty. The pandemic also resulted in exponential increases in drugs.
Unfolding of the Crisis
However, the spark that ignited the crisis occurred when gang-related violence broke out in the country’s overcrowded prisons. In December 2020, the leader of Los Choneros was murdered publicly in the city of Manta shortly after being released from prison. The killing then sparked a violent power struggle and Turf War among rival leaders. One of the worst riots was in September 2021 in the lital penitentiary in Guil, Ecuador’s largest city during which more than 120 inmates were killed.
By the time Guillermo Lasso came to power in 2021, the country was hurdling into the eye of the storm, however government failed to contain unrest. An impeachment trial in 2023 against his government, resulted in an early legislative and presidential election. A sign of how out of control the prison system became came to light when Ecuadorian authorities seized rifles, handguns, thousands of rounds of ammunition and even a grenade launcher from prisons in Guayaquil. Violence was not restricted to prison wall as evidenced by the soaring homicide rate. The country’s security situation has deteriorated significantly and there have been several high-profile assassinations. A candidate for the mayor of Pua Lopez, mayor of manta, a presidential candidate etc were assassinated as a result of further violence. Then in late August two car bombs in the city of Kito, that exploded outside the current and former offices of the Ecuadorian prison agency.
Following the re-election in 2023, 34-year-old Daniel Noboa took office with the promise to curb the crime rates in the country. The crackdowns though showed promising success, instant gang retaliations were also witnessed. Prisons were captured by inmates and gang shootouts on government officials continued. The biggest incident however took place on the 7th of January, when the leader of Los Choneros, José Adolfo Macías Villamar, also known as “Fito,” escaped from the El Inca prison where he was serving a 34-year sentence for drug trafficking. Following that on January 9, TC television station in Guayaquil was taken over by armed and hooded men during a live broadcast, who claimed to be part of La Firma, a gang associated with the larger crime group Los Choneros. After this the president declared a state of emergency in the country declaring 22 narcotics gangs terrorist organisation and ordered military action against the drug cartels. In retaliation the Prosecutor, investigating the TV station hijack case was assassinated by the gangs.
As the country is still in conflict, it is impossible to predict what’s in the future for it. So far, 1,105 people have been arrested and five alleged “terrorists” killed while two police officers have also lost their lives, according to government figures. Apart from the crimes, the country also need to pull itself out of poverty and inequality, so that the violence and crime doesn’t continue further into the country’s future.