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Intel Brief: Ecuador’s shift toward El Salvador’s hardline security policies



Date: 07/06/2024


Where: Ecuador, El Salvador 


Who’s involved:  President Nayib Bukele, President Daniel Noboa, Gangs, Drug cartels





What happened?

  • On May 31, 2024 El Salvador President Bukele met with Ecuador’s President Daniel Noboa to discuss security issues. Allegedly, Noboa and Bukele discussed their respective security strategies to “build closer ties on this topic and potential avenues for bilateral cooperation”. This could be part of Noboa's political and security agenda ahead of Ecuador's 2025 elections.


  • On June 1, 2024 El Salvador’s President Bukele was sworn in for a second term. Despite the Constitution prohibiting re-election for a Presidential mandate, Bukele won re-election on February 4, 2024, allowed by a ruling by the El Salvador's Supreme Court in September 2021, that allowed presidents to serve two consecutive terms. 


  • President Bukele, in power in El Salvador since June 2019,  became popular in the country and in the region due to his repressive anti-crime approach, known as Mano Dura (Iron Fist), to reduce gang-related violence. In March 2022, Bukele declared a state of emergency, extended for 20 consecutive months, allowing the implementation of stringent security measures that drove violence to the lowest historic levels in El Salvador recent history. Under the state of exception, over 75,000 people have been detained in the country. 


  • In late April 2024, Ecuador's President Daniel Noboa, elected in October 2023, gained significant support from the population, as Ecuadorian voted in favor of a referendum over a range of restrictive security measures to combat criminal gang violence in the country. The new security policies are part of Noboa's so-called Phoenix Plan, an anti-crime strategy to address the security crisis in the country.


  • Over the past years, drug-related violence in Ecuador has escalated significantly, hitting its highest point in January 2024 following the prison escape of one of the leaders of Los Choneros gang and a series of coordinated attacks by gangs. In response, Noboa announced a state of "internal armed conflict" and imposed a 60-day state of emergency, extended in April and May, authorizing the deployment of large military forces and the restriction of some civil liberties. Between May 27 and 31, 2024 the Ecuadorian police conducted a major operation, arresting over 200 people suspected of participating  in organized crime activities.


Analysis:

  • The term Mano Dura refers to zero-tolerance anti-gang policies implemented by Central American governments since the mid-2000s. Mano dura approaches typically involve militarizing national security, enhanced police powers, institutionalized violence with thousands of military troops deployed, massive incarcerations for illicit association, and raising sentences for gang membership and gang related crimes. These policies usually produce a decline in homicide rates and violence in the short term. They also raise long-term concerns as they erode democracy, the rule of law and civil liberties. 


  • The best known exponent of hard-line policies is surely El Salvador President Nayib Bukele, elected in 2019 with a political agenda based on his “Territorial Control Plan” to curb criminal gangs violence in the country. Since he took office, the homicide rate decreased drastically and his crackdown on crime neutralized street gangs that previously controlled the territory, gaining massive support by the population. As a result, El Salvador is now perceived as one of the safest places in Latin America. 


  • Yet, Bukele’s approach also led to the restriction of civil liberties and freedoms. In March 2022, the government declared a state of emergency that suspended basic civil liberties and constitutional guarantees and increased police presence in the country. During the prolonged state of emergency, El Salvador’s incarceration rate has soared to 1.7% of the population, meaning 1 out of every 60 residents is imprisoned. This has made El Salvador’s incarceration rate the highest in the world. Human rights organizations have criticized the government for using the state of emergency to  bypass human rights obligations, such as the presumption of innocence and the right to defense. This led to arbitrary or illegal detentions and overcrowded prisons. Moreover, another important concern of the state of exception is the excessive use of force and violations being carried out by armed forces. 


  • Despite criticism of Bukele's approach and its impact on democracy and human and civil rights, his hard-line approach against crime is often described by the media as the only effective model for fighting gangs. Across the region, countries have employed different strategies to counter organized crime, with varying degrees of success, but none have matched the success of the Salvadoran model.


  • This is why, in response to the unprecedented wave of violence in Ecuador, it appears that President Noboa is considering taking the country down the same path as El Salvador. Given the dire increase in violence in Ecuador, it is unsurprising the support garnered by the new President Noboa and his tighter anti-crime policies. The majority of Ecuador’s citizens appear ready for a mano dura approach to counter the gangs.


  • Ecuador has been grappling with an unprecedented rise in violence in the past few years. In 2023 the homicide rate registered a 74.5% increase over the previous year. In response, Noboa declared a state of emergency in January 2024, and deployed a large number of troops onto Ecuador’s streets to combat a surge in violence.  Thousands of people have been arrested and Noboa has been talking about building new maximum security prisons, following the Salvadoran model.  


  • However, it is unclear whether the Bukele-like Mano Dura approach will work in Ecuador as it did in El Salvador. Ecuador is larger and more difficult to control, with 22 active gangs involving tens of thousands of people, compared to El Salvador's two main gangs. Ecuadorian criminal networks are wealthier, more sophisticated, and better armed, making them more difficult to combat and more capable of corrupting the state. Moreover, given Ecuador's key role as a transit hub for cocaine trafficking and the involvement of Mexican and Colombian cartels in the criminal economies, the war on drugs in Ecuador will be particularly challenging. Also, the adoption of the Bukele model could have counterproductive effects such as increased fragmentation of criminal power and diversification of resources among these drug networks.


  • Finally, unlike El Salvador, Ecuador is a democracy. Adopting Mano Dura policies, such as increasing arrests, violating human rights, and cracking down on freedom of the press, would mean shifting toward more authoritarian measures, which could be challenged by democratic institutions or weaken them. The risk with this “tough on crime” security model is to erode the rule of law, militarizing the law enforcement and legitimize violation of fundamental rights, without addressing the root causes and challenges that are fuelling the instability in the first place. 


Conclusion:

The presence, power, and violence of gangs and criminal groups is a deeply rooted issue in Latin American. The surge in violence in recent years has caused citizens of democratic countries such as Ecuador to  surrender some of their freedoms to more restrictive governments in exchange for greater security. The positive results of the April 2024 referendum on tightening security in Ecuador suggest that the population might favor a more repressive approach, even at the expense of civil liberties. However, Ecuador's geography, gang history, and political system present obstacles to effectively adopting Bukele's model. Although the crackdown on violence implemented by President Noboa is beginning to show results, and his popularity is rising, new concerns are emerging about the state of human rights and democratic institutions in the country. It remains unclear to what extent Noboa is willing to follow the example of El Salvador's President. For Ecuador, an alternative approach based on addressing the root causes of violence, fighting corruption, strengthening institutions, and protecting civilians could be more effective and sustainable in the long run to address the security crisis while preserving the integrity of democracy, the rule of law, and democratic values and rights. 



 
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