Ecuador: Quasi Civil War

The way liberal policies have led to the rise of organized crime.

Ecuador has surprised by the news of a street war between criminal clans and police. It would seem that against the background of other countries with a complex political situation, they will cope with urgent issues. However, the events of the last few days have dramatically changed the security rating of this state. Though few foresaw that it might happen in early January this year. For example, when analyzing current and potential conflicts for 2024, the Council on Foreign Relations did not pay any attention at all, not only to Ecuador but also to South America as a whole. Only Mexico and Haiti have come to the attention of US experts from across the Latin American and Caribbean region.

However, what is happening in Ecuador is not a “black swan,” but rather a “gray rhino,” i.e., a problem that has been brewing for a long time, and some objective factors have only accelerated what has happened.

On January 7, José Adolfo Macías Villamar, also known by the alias Fito, the leader of Los Choneros cartel, one of the main criminal gangs, escaped from La Regional prison in Guayaquil. He had been imprisoned since 2011 for murder and drug trafficking. At the same time, riots broke out in at least six other prisons nationwide. Guayaquil, which is the most populated city in Ecuador (more than 2,200,000 inhabitants), has become the epicenter of robberies and riots. On January 9, bandits broke into the studio of TC Television but were later released by police special forces. Besides Los Choneros, another criminal group, Los Lobos, popped up. Fabricio Colón Pico, the leader of the group, also escaped from the prison. Incidentally, this group claimed responsibility for the assassination of a presidential candidate during the August 2023 election campaign.

The two groups have been feuding over their sphere of influence, and in September 2011, 116 people were killed in the same Guayaquil prison during a showdown between them.

Such scuffles turning into bloody riots in recent years are common. That same year, 2011, there were several other incidents – in February, riots broke out simultaneously in three prisons, killing 79 people; in July, 22 people lost their lives in a riot; and in September of that year, a prison was attacked by a drone. Riots continued in 2022 and 2023, and the military had to be used to subdue the prisoners.

In addition to these gangs, about 20 other gangs are operating in the country, all of which are designated as terrorist groups by decree of the Ecuadorian president.

Although Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa has said that there is an internal armed conflict in the country, the causes have an international dimension.

Los Choneros is tied to the Mexican drug Sinaloa Cartel and Los Lobos to Jalisco. Ecuador itself, together with Bolivia and Colombia, is part of the so-called cocaine triangle, which is the world’s largest producer of the drug. From Ecuador, it travels overland to Brazil and Peru and by sea to Mexico, European countries, and the African market.

Street shootings and attacks on government officials also broke out in the capital, Quito. The turmoil also engulfed the provinces of Esmeralda, Los Ríos, Guayas, and Pichincha. Various videos circulating on social networks show criminals demonstratively killing police officers, setting cars on fire, and even using heavy weapons – grenade launchers and explosives. In neighboring Peru, additional military and police forces were mobilized to tighten control of the border with Ecuador, as there was a risk that Fito and his associates might try to escape to their country – the distance from Guayaquil to Peru is only about 200 km.

Ecuador quasi civil warBy the way, Fito has previously managed to escape: in 2013, together with 17 prisoners managed to find a loophole and hide on the Daule River by boat. Four months later, he and his brother, also a member of the Los Choneros leadership, were apprehended at their mother’s house in the city of Manta.

It should be noted that the current escape is directly related to the revocation of privileges Fito enjoyed in prison – from there, he made video messages, one of which features his daughter and specific music known as “narcocorrido,” which is used by drug cartels in Latin American countries.

Ecuador is now in a state of national emergency that will last 60 days. The state of emergency suspends the rights to freedom of association, inviolability of the home, inviolability of correspondence in prisons, and freedom of movement from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. It also allows the country’s armed forces, supported by the police, to control prisons, as they have done in previous cases.

Noboa said the measures are aimed at providing full political and legal support to Ecuador’s security forces in confronting “narco-terrorist groups that intend to intimidate the government and society.” He mentioned that he would not “negotiate with terrorists” and would work to “restore peace to all Ecuadorians.”

In Guayaquil, however, 10 people were killed by bandits, and 329 criminals were apprehended.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a statement condemning the violence in Ecuador but, at the same time, said that military force should not be used. However, President Noboa has already stated that all representatives of law enforcement agencies who, for whatever reason, exceed their authority during the imposition of order will be amnestied.

But why hasn’t this happened before, such as in Mexico and Colombia, where drug wars have been raging for decades? When it comes to street crime and illegal arms trafficking in Latin America, these phenomena are prevalent in the favelas of Brazil, in the slums of Panama, and in several other countries in Central America. In Venezuela, attempts at gun seizures and amnesties, even under Hugo Chávez and a relatively high GDP at the time, did not lead to anything – except that the Caracas police chief was killed. Obviously, there are other factors besides the ongoing activities of drug gangs in Ecuador that have catalyzed the current crisis.

First, organized crime had previously been dealt with more effectively, and not only by preventive measures.

The Swiss-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime noted in its study that “since 2007, Ecuador’s approach to crime control has emphasized efforts to achieve higher levels of social control through social inclusion policies and innovations in criminal justice and police reform. The decision to legalize several street gangs in 2007 was an innovative aspect of this approach. The government says the policy’s success can be seen in the homicide rate, which fell from 15.35 per 100,000 in 2011 to 5 per 100,000 in 2017.”

These are the years during the reign of popular politician Rafael Correa (2007 – 2017). His successor, Lenín Moreno (2017 – 2021), turned out to be a traitor and began changing domestic and foreign policies (including turning Julian Assange over to British authorities). Under his administration, the cultivation and sale of marijuana was legalized in 2019. Guillermo Lasso (2021 – 2023), a liberal and banker, exacerbated the socio-economic problems. In addition, his presidency was marked by a coronavirus epidemic that critically impoverished the population. The newly elected president of Ecuador and part-time banana oligarch, owner of offshore companies, and LGBT supporter Daniel Noboa only continued the course of liberal reforms, including the process of privatization of strategically important areas.

Secondly, during the reign of the traitorous Lenín Moreno and Guillermo Lasso (it is worth recalling that he was forced out of office after a corruption scandal related to oil transportation – fearing impeachment, he dissolved parliament and called new elections), organized crime strengthened its forces, penetrated state structures, including the security forces. The unstable economy has also made small street gangs more active, and it is no coincidence that acts of looting began in some cities after shootings with police. Although there have been positive cases where citizens have begun to help the police and military patrol the streets and record offenses.

President Noboa is now copying the strategy of his Salvadoran counterpart, Nayib Bukele, who, after coming to power, did not go easy on organized crime but declared a state of emergency and started catching criminal elements. A new prison for 40,000 people was even built for this purpose. The tough measures worked: about 70,000 gangsters were behind bars, and the number of murders decreased more than tenfold. However he did it not when the conflict broke out, but initiated the fight against crime himself.

But Bukele is not a liberal like Noboa, whose term expires in 2025. Along with suppressing crime, he needs to develop mechanisms to socialize marginalized elements and improve the welfare of citizens. And his announced reforms are unlikely to do so. More likely, they will enrich the transnationals and crony oligarchs.

Finally, and thirdly, another version of the reason for the current conflict outbreak is the activation of the CIA and their agents who want to destabilize the entire Andean region (after all, the situation in Peru and Chile is also complicated). Although it sounds like a conspiracy, given the skills of US intelligence agencies and their networks in Latin America, it should not be dismissed, but more attention should be paid to the activities of State Department agents who do not want to lose the region.

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.
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