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The Battle for Ecuador: Can President Noboa Win a Losing Fight?

By Argus Lee



When Daniel Noboa was sworn in as Ecuador’s youngest ever president-elect at the age of 35 in 2023, he promised the tumultuous country that he would ‘rebuild a country battered by violence, by corruption and by hate.’ Daniel Noboa knew this was not going to be an easy job – just 2 months ago, prominent presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, an outspoken critic on corruption and gang violence, was brutally assassinated when he was leaving a campaign event in Quito. But never in his most petrifying nightmare would the aspiring president envision the current state of Ecuador – a faltering narco-state struggling against merciless and vicious gangs.

It was 9 January 2024, a normal day in the headquarters of the public channel TC Television. Or so it seemed. Suddenly, several masked men burst into the live broadcast, wielding machine guns, shotguns and grenades, and threatened to wage war against the state on live TV. Unfortunately for crime-ridden Ecuador, this was no isolated incident. Since the start of the year, police officers have been dragged out of their cars and abducted, prison guards mercilessly executed by murderous gangsters, and helpless students kidnapped when thugs broke into a university. Bloodthirsty gangs have terrorised the streets of Ecuador, and crime has run rampant in this once harmonious country - the murder rate has more than quadrupled since 2018, and Ecuador has transformed into one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America.


The descent into violence

Why is this tiny nation on the West Coast of South America mired in this recent wave of gang violence? Despite its relatively small size, Ecuador is sandwiched between Colombia and Peru, which accounts for 87% of global cocaine production. Vast amounts of cocaine (with financial estimates in 2021 reaching as high as $953 million) is then transported into Ecuador, specifically the port city of Guayaquil (where both the TV station and university was attacked), and eventually exported to Europe. In recent years, cocaine production in Colombia and Peru has increased significantly – farmland used in the cultivation of coca in the 2 Colombian states adjacent to Ecuador had risen by a staggering 25% from 2016 to 2021, leading to a substantial rise in drug trafficking and gang violence in neighbouring Ecuador.


But geographical location is not the sole factor – Ecuador has historically been a peaceful country relative to its troubled Latin American neighbours. So why the sudden surge in crime now? One must look inwards and dive into the history of Ecuador’s domestic politics to fully comprehend the current situation. During Rafael Correa’s administration (2007-2017), Ecuador has adopted an unconventional approach to tackling gang violence – rather than being tough on crime like other Latin American countries, it opted for an emphasis on policies of social inclusion, such as the legalisation of street gangs in 2007. The aim of such a lenient strategy was to ‘defang’ the gangs and transform them into cultural associations. This move allowed previous antagonistic gangs to express their culture in a peaceful and civilised manner. For example, multiple (former) Ecuadorian gangs collaborated and held one of the biggest hip-hop concerts. The legalisation of gangs also incorporated them into a healthy and vibrant civil society. Their participation in social projects alongside government ministers and police officers establish benevolent relationships, allowing gangs to forgo their rebellious and anti-authority nature. At first glance, this unique strategy was a tremendous success – the homicide rate had plummeted from 17.1 per 100,000 to 5.6 per 100,000 in 2016, a gigantic drop of 67%. However, the seeds of the current crisis was planted under Correa’s regime – to fit in his ‘Abrazos, no Balazos’ (to borrow terminology from fellow left-wing populist AMLO) rhetoric, he disbanded the elite Anti-Narcotics Investigation Unit, which was trained by the Drug Enforcement Administration in the US. He also weakened US relations, who had traditionally supported the neoliberal ‘tough-on-crime’ strategy when dealing with gangs. This provided a perfect opportunity for foreign gangs in Colombia and Peru to establish drug trafficking routes in Ecuador, and so they did.


Succeeding Correa was the centre-right President Lenin Moreno (2017-2021). Dissatisfied with the accumulation of national debt under the former left-leaning regime, President Moreno decided to implement austerity. While government finances did improve under Moreno’s government, it came with a substantial cost – the Ministry of Justice was abolished, and a lot of social inclusion policies established under Correa were abandoned. While the legalisation of gangs was kept in place, communications between the state and the ‘culture associations’ were effectively cut off, brewing discontent among local gang members towards the state. However, the Moreno administration's most significant blunder was the slashing of the budget for the criminal justice system. Under Moreno’s government, prison capacity overflowed by 32%, and would progressively worsen throughout the years. Prison guards became significantly outnumbered and overwhelmed by the number of prisoners, allowing massive gangs such as Los Choneros and Los Lobos to treat prisons as headquarters, devising strategies and sending out instructions on drug trafficking. Signs of rising violence were starting to appear under Moreno’s administration – the homicide rate has climbed from 5.8 per 100,000 to 7.7 per 100,000. To combat the rising violence, his successor, the centre-right reformer Guillermo Lasso (2021-2023), enacted harsher policies, such as raising the penalties for drug offences and increasing gang raids along the border with Colombia, effectively declaring war on gangs. The homicide rate skyrocketed to 26 per 100,000 during this period, and in the last months of Guillermo Lasso, presidential-hopeful Villavicencio was assassinated. Before current president Noboa (2023-) was inaugurated, the situation of Ecuador was already spiralling out of control.


But Noboa’s nightmare had only just started – in a bid to wrestle back control over the prisons, he ordered the transfer of Fito, the gang leader of Los Choneros, to a high-security prison dominated by a rival gang, Los Lobos. Fearful of his life, Fito escaped and sought revenge against the state, leading to a series of kidnappings and beheadings of prison guards. To make matters worse, the leader of the Los Lobos gang, Capitan Pico, also escaped. Noboa was furious – he declared a state of emergency, imposed a curfew, authorised the military to oversee national security, and named 20 new gangs as terrorist groups in the space of 3 weeks. 


i Ecuador's President Daniel Noboa


The age of strongmen?

It comes as no surprise that Mr. Noboa looks up to El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, who managed to turn El Salvador from having the highest homicide rate per capita in the world to one of the safest countries in Latin America. Winning over pundits left and right, Bukele has managed to turn himself into the most popular figure in Latin America since his inauguration back in 2019. How did Bukele achieve such an ‘amazing’ feat in the short space of 5 years? He went for extreme methods – pursuing draconian judicial reforms (e.g. allowing up to 900 people to be tried simultaneously), expanding the power of the executive and his police force (e.g. permitting arrest without warrant), and concentrating political power by his move to prolong of the state of emergency indefinitely. He followed the classic dictator’s playbook – packing the courts with loyal judges which are willing to hand out harsh sentences with weak evidence, prosecuting the media for allegedly reproducing messages from gangs, etc. Nothing better summarises Bukele’s political strategy than the opening of the Terrorism Confinement Centre, which can hold up to 40,000 inmates. One prison cell (100 sq. metre) can hold up to 75 inmates, who will share only 2 toilets and 2 sinks between them. There are no socialising facilities, nor are they allowed visits from family members. While it might be tempting to follow Bukele’s lead and enact his authoritarian policies to maintain law and order, it would be a grave mistake if Mr. Noboa replicates Bukele’s blueprint to tackle gang violence.


First, Bukele’s methods were brutal – the suppression of gang violence was prioritised over democratic procedures. Human rights and freedoms were largely ignored (more on that later). For Bukele to successfully implement such authoritarian policies, he needed the support of the public – and he has it. His charisma and rhetoric has charmed the masses, and his approval rating stands at an astonishing 87%. On the other hand, Mr. Noboa barely won over 50% of the vote, and while the country is united against his fight against gangs, one could not imagine the same positive reception if he carried out the same autocratic policies. Wars on drugs often failed because of the lack of support – gangs often rely on the loyalty of citizens to evade arrest by hiding in their homes etc. By enforcing such authoritarian measures, Mr. Noboa risks alienating his fellow citizens, making it basically impossible to restore law and order.


Secondly, even if Noboa managed to convince the public to abide by these draconian reforms, these measures would significantly erode constitutional liberalism in the country, and would complete the country’s transition from a liberal democracy to an authoritarian state (which first started under Lasso). Violations of human rights are common in Bukele’s El Salvador – more than 60,000 arrests were conducted without an arrest warrant, and some were accused based on prior criminal record or even tattoos. With over 500 detainees participating in one hearing, a considerable number of innocent individuals are jailed in inhumane conditions (over 3000 detainees had already been freed due to a lack of evidence). There is also a notable erosion of democratic institutions. The packing of courts with loyalists has weakened judiciary independence, while supermajority in legislative chambers had allowed Bukele to bypass checks and balances, enacting increasingly authoritarian measures. Press freedom has fallen by a colossal 20 percentage points, from 70.3 to 51.36, since his inauguration as president. Bukele’s assault on his country’s democratic institutions has not ended despite the downturn in violence – he is seeking a second five-year term, which is not within the bounds of the constitution. Is this the future of Ecuador that President Noboa yearns for? A country terrorised not by gangs but the dictatorial state, where people still live in fear, albeit under different circumstances.


Some might still be tempted to accept this trade-off – one would rather live under despotic rule than a democratic failed state that cannot guarantee basic security for its citizens. However, I still contend that Noboa must not succumb to the temptation of authoritarianism, as the situation in Ecuador is fundamentally different from El Salvador. First, the gangs in Ecuador are considerably more powerful than their counterparts in El Salvador. For example, Los Choneros has links to the notorious Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, once headed by the infamous ‘El Chapo’ and is currently one of the largest drug-trafficking organisations in the world. The small local gangs in El Salvador are negligible when compared to the formidable, violent gangs in Ecuador. Equipped with military-grade weaponry, such as hand grenades and machine guns, the potential devastation of a ‘war on gangs’ in Ecuador is markedly greater than in El Salvador. In fact, after the assassination of prominent presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, Lasso called in the army and announced a state of emergency, but it only exacerbated the security crisis. The prison system in El Salvador was also undoubtedly more advanced than Ecuador – the construction of the Terrorism Confinement Centre allowed El Salvador to jail 2% of its population, but Ecuador lacks the prison facilities to conduct mass arrests. Unrest between rival gangs in existing prisons between 2020 and 2023 had already claimed the lives of 500 prisoners, while corruption and incompetence permitted the escape of the bosses of the 2 biggest gangs in the space of a week. Mass arrests would only contribute to more violence and chaos in a criminal justice system already in disarray.


A faint glimmer of hope

Is all hope lost? The Ecuadorian state seems to be helpless against the recent surge in gang violence, and it lacks the capacity to conduct a ‘domestic war’ against the powerful cartels. However, I argue that if Noboa played his cards perfectly, there might be a scant possibility that Ecuador can escape the current trajectory of becoming a narco-state. Rather than simply declaring an all-out war against gangs, Noboa should utilise a combination of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ strategies to disarm them. 

On one hand, Noboa should revive Correa’s strategy of social inclusion as a means to weaken small, local gangs. Despite its trivial size, these gangs play an important role in the cocaine trade, as they often act as local guides to larger, foreign gangs. If the government can breed distrust between domestic Ecuadorian gangs and the organised syndicates from Colombia and Peru, it can cause serious disruption to existing cocaine trade networks. Mr. Noboa could try to restore dialogues similar to that of the Correa’s regime, or even grant an amnesty to small gang leaders to reconnect with these gangs. At the same time, Mr. Noboa should direct more policy attention to alleviating poverty and inequality. Youths often, out of desperation, join local gangs to earn a living. The launching of several government subsidiaries and youth employment schemes will greatly lower recruitment in local gangs.


On the other hand, Noboa should simultaneously be ‘tough on crime’. Mr. Correa’s carelessness significantly weakened Ecuador’s security forces and provided an ample opportunity for Peruvian and Colombian cocaine gangs. Mr. Noboa should bring back the Anti-Narcotics Investigations Unit and increase patrols and checks in the port cities such as Guayaquil. It is imperative for the state to wrestle back control in its prisons, and Mr. Noboa should not hesitate to send in the military to restore order. Ecuador should also gladly accept the aid and support provided by the US, and actively seek both training and guidance from US military instructors. Finally, it should expand its cross-border operations with Colombia and Peru to dismantle cocaine trading routes into the country. Colombia and Peru also have significantly more military resources and expertise in tackling gang violence than Ecuador, and collaborations between these countries would increase their chances of eradicating drug cartels.


Fear, dread, and despair has gripped the tiny nation of Ecuador. But there is a tiny ray of hope - if Mr. Noboa is the strong, courageous leader Ecuador needs, he can lift his people out of the abyss of violence and restore law and order in this once peaceful country. He must garner the strength and sagacity to overpower and outsmart the ruthless cartels that invaded his homeland. Whatever pathway he chooses to undertake in the next year or so will define his political career. He can either be dismissed as another political failure that succumbed to the violence of gangs, despised as a merciless dictator that destroyed the remnants of Ecuador's frail democracy, or be glorified as a national hero who saved his troubled nation, ingrained forever in Ecuadorian folklore. Mr Noboa's legacy is on the line - but so is the fate of the 17.8 million inhabitants in this small nation on the West Coast of South America.


IMAGE 1: EPA-EFE/JOSE JACOME

IMAGE 2: FINANCIAL TIMES

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1 comentario


joannatadjer
25 ene

This is a very interesting article with a very present point of view. Looking forward to the next article from this very talented journalist!

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