Ecuador Confronts a Storm of Violence
Ecuador is experiencing a wave of violence. The armed forces have been sent to the streets to support police forces to maintain control and peace. However, an incident in late April, in which over ten people were killed and several injured during a shootout in Guayaquil, demonstrates that the Ecuadorian defense and security forces have a long war ahead of them.
To worsen the situation, the violence occurs during a period of political turmoil, as President Guillermo Lasso announced on 17 May his decision to dissolve the opposition-controlled National Assembly and call for early elections.
Over the past year, violence has increased nationwide. The situation in Ecuadorian prisons deserves particular attention. Overcrowded facilities without sufficient staff are not uncommon in Ecuador or Latin America. However, violence within Ecuadorian prisons has gained international notoriety. In April, violence between inmates at the Litoral prison (Penitenciaría del Litoral) left at least 12 dead. A new incident occurred on 9 May in that prison, though no fatalities or casualties were reported. An October uprising last October 2022 in Cotopaxi prison, close to Lacatunga city, left at least 15 dead and 21 wounded.
Out in the streets, the situation is equally problematic. The violence has hit Guayaquil in particular. In late April, over ten people were killed in Guayaquil during a shootout “at a mechanic shop in the city’s southwest.” In addition, violence has become quite common in public transportation areas, such as on buses. The Ecuadorian daily El Comercio describes how thieves organize themselves in groups of three or five individuals, carrying knives or guns, to steal from passengers. According to an Ecuadorian research center, thefts in public transportation reached 3,214 incidents between January and 19 April of 2023, a slight decrease from 3,586 reported incidents during the same period in 2022. We can assume more incidents occurred that were not reported.
A state of emergency was put in place in Guayaquil on 1 April. Ministry of the Interior Juan Zapata said in early May that there has been a decrease of 16% in violent deaths since the emergency state was created. According to Quito, there have been 1,697 arrests since April of this year, including 143 gang leaders across the country. Up to “60% of those detained have criminal records," said Infobae agency.
Who is Behind the Violence?
Media reports highlight that Mexican cartels now operate in Ecuador to profit from the ever-lucrative drug trade, including Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación and the Cartel de Sinaloa. Ecuadorian gangs work for the cartels or are “independent” actors.
The news agency BN Americas interviewed Mario Pazmiño, former head of the Ecuadorian intelligence service and a current professor at the Los Andes Autonomous University (Universidad Autónoma de los Andes: Uniandes). When asked why Ecuador has so much insecurity and violence, Pazmiño argued, “Ecuador suffered a transformation: from a transit country [for drug trafficking], the country became a hub. Right now, after Brazil, [Ecuador] is the major exporter of cocaine from Latin America to Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.” The former intelligence chief also noted that the Colombian government’s operations to combat narco-insurgents and drug traffickers in Colombia forced these criminal networks to move abroad, namely to Ecuador. Moreover, there is a spill-over effect, as drug trafficking from Colombia’s Nariño department, which borders Ecuador, spilled over to Ecuador’s Esmeraldas province.
Some 750 tons of Colombian cocaine annually pass through Ecuadorian ports and airfields to Europe, the ex-intel chief said. With that said, given how problematic it is to determine how much cocaine is produced or trafficked, the aforementioned number is probably too low.
The Ecuadorian Military Marches Forward
On 28 April, the Ecuadorian Minister of Defense, General Luis Lara, gave a press briefing. He stressed that “the armed forces of Ecuador… are ready to confront the enemies of peace, who seek to terrorize Ecuadorians.”
The Ecuadorian Army regularly posts updates of operations nationwide to crack down on crimes. For example, troops assigned to Infantry Brigade No. 13 “Pichincha” carried out security operations in Quito in mid-April, including vehicle checks. The operations resulted in the seizure of six edged weapons, 100g of “green substances,” and homemade alcohol. A February operation along the border with Colombia resulted in the stopping of two vehicles with Ecuadorian license plates that had crossed the border. A total of 249 kg of cocaine were found onboard. In El Oro province, troops from the Motorized Infantry Battalion No. 2 “Imbabura” arrested an Ecuadorian carrying one Mini Uzi 9mm gun, one Tisas 9 mm handgun, and ammo. Finally, in mid-April, the Jungle Battalion No. 62 “Zamora” troops conducted vehicle checks in Zamora Chinchipe province. An Ecuadorian passenger aboard a taxi was interrogated and searched: he was transporting USD 74 thousand and could not explain where the cash came from.
While there is a natural and obvious preference by English-language international media outlets to focus on bloody incidents, like prison violence, the list above of recent Army operations is helpful as it illustrates the size of the problem. Ecuadorians who work for criminal entities are all not necessarily violent individuals, but even a “narco courier” contributes to the problem.
The Ecuadorian Navy has also announced that five officers and 45 marines recently participated in a training course focused on urban combat. This is an essential factor to remember as we are witnessing a re-training of Ecuadorian troops for internal security purposes. It will be necessary to monitor how, if the violence continues, the armed forces' budget and acquisition programs are modified in the coming years to focus on acquiring equipment more suitable for domestic and urban operations.
Similarly, the commander of the Ecuadorian police, Fausto Salinas, has announced that US intelligence agencies will help the Ecuadorian police combat terrorism, drug trafficking, and organized crime. This assistance will involve “international training and support [in areas like] close combat, and investigations, at the technical and tactical level, of terrorist operations.” Some 1,700 Ecuadorian police officers will receive this training. However, the police commander did not disclose how many US personnel would arrive in the South American country or when the training would commence.
The violence has had domestic political and foreign policy consequences. In April, Diego Ordóñez, national secretary for Public and State Security, resigned from his post due to the ongoing violence. Though not confirmed, it has been reported that Ecuador’s Public and State Security Council (Consejo de Seguridad Pública y del Estado: COSEPE), a state agency, recommended President Guillermo Lasso approve the use of lethal weapons to combat criminality and violence in the country. It is unclear how police and military tactics will change if this proposal is accepted.
The violence affecting Ecuador is not likely to subside anytime soon. The cartels and gangs that operate in the country are not interested in regime change, but the violence is doubtlessly affecting President Lasso; poll results released in February put his disapproval rating at around 84% (adding respondents that said his presidency is “bad” or “very bad”). The Ecuadorian president was already in hot water due to non-violence-related political tensions, which resulted in him dissolving the National Assembly, but the lack of public security is a rising concern for the general population.
Quito’s decision to use the armed forces to help law enforcement agencies combat gangs and regain control of the streets is controversial for a region like Latin America but not unheard of. Mexico and, most recently, El Salvador have deployed their militaries internally (not to mention Brazil and Colombia, among other examples). Perhaps if these internal security operations are successful, local gangs and drug-transport routes will be eliminated so that more extensive criminal networks will opt to migrate elsewhere. Drug trafficking is a problem that has not been permanently solved in the Western Hemisphere; it merely changes zip codes.