Ecuadorian President Noboa, Los Choneros gang, Narcotraffic cartels
On Sunday 07/01/2024, Adolfo Macias, known as Fito, leader of the Ecuadorian Los Choneros gang, escaped from prison before he was set to be transported to another highly secure facility. His escape prompted the Ecuadorian government to call for a 60-day national state of emergency and include a curfew from 23:00 until 5:00. A man-hunt has also begun.
In response to the state of emergency, drug gangs attacked several police officers, rioted in prisons and took guards hostage, set off explosive devices around the country, and invaded a national TV station during a live broadcast. The Ecuadorian security forces ultimately arrested all the hostage-takers at the TV station.
President Noboa then called the situation in Ecuador an “internal armed conflict” and enlisted 22 gangs as terrorist organizations, ordering their neutralization through a massive mobilization of security forces.
President Noboa, who took office in November 2023 after winning the election on 15/10/2023, gained widespread popular support for his policy agenda focused on significant security sector and justice system reforms, including high-security prison vessels to mitigate prison overcrowding and massacres and expansion of military authority, reminiscent of El Salvador's President Bukele's "mano dura" security measures. On 03/01/2024, Noba announced a referendum on imposing tighter security measures based on militarization and restrictive anti-crime policies to eradicate gang-related violence in the country. On 04/01/2024, the construction of two "Bukele-like" prisons was announced.
In September 2023, a few weeks before the final presidential run-off, gangs attacked several locations around the country, using explosives and taking police officers hostage for a day. Schools in the most affected parts of the country were closed for a few days to reduce exposure to electoral violence.
Ecuador has been grappling with an unprecedented rise in violence in the past few years. The country has shifted from being the most peaceful in the region to now registering the fourth-highest homicide rate in Latin America. Between 2016 and 2022, Ecuador's homicide rate spiked by nearly 500%. The homicide rate in 2023 reached an unprecedented peak. In 2023, the port city of Guayaquil recorded an 80 percent increase in homicides and gang-related violent crimes.
The security crisis has been triggered by the rise of gangs and criminal groups taking advantage of Ecuador's increasingly key role in the cocaine trafficking chain to Europe. Colombian, Mexican, Venezuelan, and Albanian drug trafficking networks compete to control Ecuador ports to exploit banana trade routes, of which the country is the world's largest exporter, to smuggle drugs, mainly to Europe. The Covid-19 pandemic has largely contributed to the deterioration of security in the country. The crisis and high unemployment rate facilitated recruitment by drug cartels and criminal organizations.
Meanwhile, once fragmented and not very influential, local organized crime has gained much power through drug trafficking. In recent years, Ecuadorian gangs have undergone a process of sophistication and affiliation with foreign cartels and organized crime groups, becoming more structured and violent. The country records numerous prison gangs, which control most detention facilities from which they orchestrate criminal activities and forge relationships with international drug trafficking networks. The most prominent local gangs in Ecuador are Los Choneros and Los Lobos.
The prison system in Ecuador is experiencing a major crisis burdened by a lack of state control, corruption, and overpopulation. Gangs control most of the prisons, and government-appointed wardens and guards are forced to pledge allegiance to the drug cartel leaders. New prisoners or prison officers bring in weapons and drugs, and the violence against other inmates has risen sharply since 2018. The spike in prison violence can be connected to President Correa's 2007-2017 administration's crime reduction initiatives based on the construction of mega-prisons, which led to the counterproductive effect of increasing the prison population and facilitating gang organization.
Ecuador has recently undergone a violent election. In August 2023, presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was murdered after he had been vocal about Los Choneros. His murder has been linked to the now escaped drug lord Macias. The six Colombians who were arrested in relation to the assassination have since been murdered in Ecuadorian prisons.
In recent years, Ecuador's administrations have frequently resorted to declaring states of emergency to counter the spiraling out-of-control increase in violence in the country and deal with the rapidly deteriorating security and criminal landscape. However, President Noboa's declaration of armed conflict against gangs is an unprecedented event.
The situation in Ecuador is likely to escalate in the coming days as the military cracks down on organized crime in a counter-terrorism operation. However, the government may be unprepared to handle this sort of offensive. The significant mobilization of armed forces and expected clashes with criminal groups are likely to trigger even more violence and instability in the country, increasing the risk to the civilian population. Indeed, hard-line approaches to crime often have fueled the backlash of gangs rather than appeasing them.
Moreover, President Noboa has not provided further details on the conduct of the internal armed conflict nor a strategy to de-escalate the operation. The risk is that should the conflict against the gangs protract longer than expected by the presidency, Ecuador's government and armed forces may lack the capacity and resources to endure and manage the spike in violence.
Evidence in countries like Mexico and El Salvador proved that military crackdowns, although they might curb criminality in the short term, have led to more violence and corruption in the long run. Indeed, “mano dura" policies, based on zero tolerance against drug crimes, militarization, and mass incarceration of gangs and criminals, often proved counterproductive in the long run. Conservative policies foster human rights violations, impose restrictions on freedoms, grant forceful authority to the military, erode the rule of law, and reinforce the power of elites. Moreover, mass incarcerations lead to prison overcrowding and facilitate the reorganization and strengthening of criminal groups and gangs.
The current strategy of "war on gangs" could, therefore, result in increased power on the part of criminal organizations. It is also possible that criminal gangs will try to gain more influence on national and regional politics, as demonstrated by the assassination of the presidential candidate who vowed to crack down on corruption and the influence of drug cartels in Ecuador.
Following Noboa's declaration of internal armed conflict, Peru also declared a state of emergency along its shared border with Ecuador. Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile have expressed support for Ecuador’s administration and population. On 10/01/2024, the United States condemned the rising violence in Ecuador, while China closed its embassy and consulates in the country.
Finally, Ecuador needs increased support and intervention from the international community to address the ongoing security crisis. Specifically, governments in the region, including Colombia and Peru, should coordinate counterinsurgency strategies against the transnational networks of these influential criminal organizations. Finally, should Noboa lose the war against the gangs, Ecuador could, in the worst-case scenario, also convert into a full-fledged narco-state, affecting not only the stability of the region but also altering the routes and patterns of drug trafficking globally.
After the assassination of presidential candidate Villavicienco in August 2023, the newly elected president Noboa vowed to smash the drug cartels in Ecuador; however, given the influence and power of gangs, it is proving to be a challenging goal. The escape of Los Choners’ leader Macias from prison and the uncontrollable escalation of violence that has spread through the country demonstrated the actual magnitude of these organizations in Ecuador. Although the announcement of a new national emergency plan to eradicate drug cartels, there is a chance that Ecuador will devolve into a security crisis that can be compared to the ongoing situation in Mexico, where drug cartels are seemingly more powerful than the government. Moreover, Noboa's hard-line counterinsurgency strategy based on militarization and the deployment of extreme measures to curb gang-related violence could backfire and spawn even more instability and violence in the country. Indeed, in the long term, the widespread tendency for Latin American states to turn to mass incarcerations or violent crackdowns by the military could constitute a direct threat to human rights, the rule of law, and democratic institutions. At the moment, there is not enough information to predict the development of the security crisis in Ecuador. Yet, it is arguable that Ecuador cannot face the "war" against gangs without support from the international community. The rise of so-called narco-states and the spread of the "war on drugs" policies will be a major test of the ability of the international community to address the global challenge posed by transnational drug trafficking and drug-related violence without allowing a deterioration of democracies.