Who’s involved: Newly elected President of Ecuador Daniel Noboa, former President Guillermo Lasso, Ecuador gangs and transnational criminal networks
On Sunday, October 15, 2023, the second round of presidential elections was held in Ecuador between leftist candidate Luisa González of the Citizen Revolution Movement - protégé of Rafael Correa, President from 2007 to 2017 - and Daniel Noboa, candidate of the center-right National Democratic Action party. Noboa ultimately won the ballot with 52% of the votes.
The 35-year-old newly elected President is the youngest in Ecuador's modern history and is the son of the most prominent banana tycoon and former presidential candidate, Alvaro Noboa. Since 2021, Noboa has been a designated member of the National Assembly and chaired the Economic Development Commission.
Noboa will take office in December 2023. However, his mandate will last only until May 2025, to complete the term of former President Guillermo Lasso, who, on May 17, 2023, invoked the so-called “muerte cruzada” which means dissolving the National Assembly, and called for early elections to avoid an impeachment trial for alleged corruption. Noboa will be guaranteed a chance to run again in the 2025 elections.
Ecuador's elections took place in a climate of gang-related and political violence. A few days before the primary election, on August 9, 2023, anti-corruption and anti-gangs presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated. Subsequently, six suspects were assassinated in Quito on October 6, in the country's largest penitentiary institute, while a seventh was found dead the day after.
Given the climate of violence, exacerbated further by Villavicencio's assassination, the political agendas of the presidential candidates, regardless of their political stance, have focused on increasing security and stability in the country.
Both candidates proposed a "mano dura" approach inspired by the model implemented by Bukele in El Salvador. The term mano dura, in English 'firm hand,' entailed a set of crime policies usually adopted against gangs. According to pre-election polls, most voters strongly supported more restrictive and militarized anti-crime policies. Most of Ecuador's young population, the part of society mostly affected by gang and drug-related violence, stood in favor of tightening measures against organized crime.
Noboa's policy agenda revolves around overcoming youth unemployment through socio-economic reforms and addressing the security crisis and growing violence in the country. His security plan, known as "Phoenix," calls for significant reforms of the security sector and judicial system, high-security prison boats to mitigate prison overcrowding and massacres, and the expansion of military authority, reminiscent of "mano dura" security measures. Noboa plans to create a new intelligence unit to tackle gangs and organized crime, equipped with technologies such as drones and access to images and military equipment.
In the past five years, especially since the pandemic, security in Ecuador has deteriorated drastically. 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 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.
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, 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 gang in Ecuador is Los Choneros.
Ecuador, for decades, despite its proximity to Colombia and Peru, leading producers and exporters of cocaine, has managed to be relatively shielded from the region's violent and criminal dynamics. Several factors facilitated the recent escalation of violence. First, tightening policies and controls against drug trafficking in neighboring countries has caused transnational criminal groups to turn to Ecuador's poorly controlled ports. Moreover, the demobilization of the Colombian guerrilla FARC in 2016 has influenced the violent shift in the country. The Ecuadorian government had stable relations with the group to ensure a relatively peaceful and non-involvement of narco-traffic. Finally, regarding domestic policies, President Correa's 2007-2017 administration's crime reduction initiatives based on the construction of mega-prisons led to the counterproductive effect of increasing the prison population and facilitating gang organization.
Noboa proposes more restrictive anti-crime policies to curb rising violence in Ecuador. "Mano dura" policies, based on militarization and mass incarceration of gangs and criminals, have significantly decreased violence and homicides in El Salvador. Nevertheless, this approach could be highly 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.
Ecuador is not the only state unfolding its gaze toward restrictive policies against crime. Many countries in the region have adopted Bukele-like hard-line measures, including Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, Bolivia, Colombia, and Argentina.
Ecuador's new President, Daniel Noboa, will face multiple challenges during his temporary tenure to meet the expectations and address the frustrations of citizens. The top priority will be addressing the security crisis, reversing the trend of escalating violence, and eradicating rising crime and drug trafficking by local gangs and transnational organized criminal groups. Yet Noboa's policy agenda, which includes the creation of prison boats to isolate the most dangerous and powerful criminals, is still poorly articulated and ambitious for the available time. The likely shift toward hard-line and restrictive security strategies, while effectively reducing crime and gang-related violence in the short term, could result in increased militarization, state of violence, and potential socio-political and democratic deterioration in the country.