GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 723, 17 August 2023

Ecuador: Increasing political violence
Madhura Mahesh

In the news
On 9 August, Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was killed at a political rally in Quito. Villavicencio had previously received death threats from Los Choneros, a powerful gang in Ecuador allegedly associated with the Sinaloa Cartel. He was one of the eight presidential candidates in the snap elections and campaigned on fighting corruption and gang violence in the country. 

After the assassination, incumbent President Guillermo Lasso announced a three-day nationwide state of emergency. The Ecuadorian State Attorney General's Office said six Columbians were arrested for the assassination. 

On 14 August, a member of the Citizen Revolution Movement (CRM) party, Pedro Briones, was shot in Esmeraldas. Briones belonged to the same party as former President Rafael Correra and leading presidential candidate Luisa Gonzalez. Gonzalez has reportedly increased her security and said: "Ecuador is experiencing its bloodiest era." 

Issues at large
First, the strategic location of Ecuador and its vulnerability to drug exports and gang violence. Ecuador is located between Colombia in the north and Peru in the south. While it is not a coca cultivator or cocaine producer, Ecuador historically has been a transit country whose ports were used to export drugs to the US and Europe. After the 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels, the resulting rebelling factions took refuge in Columbia and, along with local gangs, established drug export operations. This also drew transnational crime groups and powerful cartels such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel to Ecuador to ship their drugs to the US and Europe. The 2016 peace deal also led to a crackdown on drug production and exports from Columbia, whose operations were shifted to Ecuador through the porous borders between the two countries. On 28 December 2022, the Colombian and Ecuadorian armed forces signed an agreement to combat drug trafficking and organized crime along the 586-kilometre border between the two countries. 

Second, increasing gang violence. Manta, Guayaquil, and Esmeraldas have seen a surge in gang violence after the Covid-19 pandemic. Due to Ecuador's worsening economic situation, many have resorted to joining gangs, resulting in a lack of jobs. Additionally, weakening state institutions and the increasing use of informal labour have paved the way for the rise of gangs in Ecuador. Increasing gang presence in Ecuador has resulted in rising homicide rates. Human Rights Watch recorded an over 80 per cent increase from 2021 to 2022. In 2022, homicide rates increased to 25 per cent per 100,000 from 13.7 per cent per 100,000 in 2021. The Ecuadorian national police reported that in the first six months of 2023, 3,568 people died due to gang violence compared to 4,600 deaths recorded in 2022. On 30 April, Guayaquil witnessed a brutal armed attack where ten people were killed overnight in a supposed turf war between opposing gangs. On 23 July, Manta Mayor Agustin Intriago was killed while he was on a routine inspection.

Third, the rise of prison gangs. Since 2021, Ecuador has seen several prison riots, the latest being on 22 and 23 July. Ecuadorian prisons act as the base for all gang activity in the country. Leaders of the dominant gangs are all imprisoned in Ecuadorian prisons. After 2016, the rise of gang-related violence in Ecuador was dealt with mass arrests and strict pre-trial detention, which led to various gangs making deals and forming alliances in prison. The gangs are run from prisons with funding from other powerful transnational criminal organizations from Mexico and the Balkans. Along with gang violence outside prisons, the leaders also organize riots and hold guards, hostage, and turf wars in prisons. The gangs have been able to take control of the prisons due to a lack of trained prison guards and lax reforms for improving inmates' conditions and laws regarding overcrowding of prisons. Ecuador follows a pre-trial detention policy and arrests anyone suspected of a minor drug offence. This has crowded prisons as Ecuador's prisons have a capacity of 30,169 detainees; however, they currently house over 32,798 detainees. Additionally, many prisons are not in use due to structural and safety issues. These prisons have become recruitment centres for gangs, forcing prisoners to swear their allegiance to gangs controlling the prisons. 

Fourth, snap elections. On 17 May, incumbent President Guillermo Lasso dissolved the National Assembly, a day after his impeachment trial calling for snap elections on 20 August. Afterwards, eight presidential candidates registered amid the tense situation of rising gang violence. Each candidate has outlined reforms to Ecuadorian security infrastructure and combating increasing gang influence and power. 

In perspective
First, a dichotomy in response to gang violence across South America. After the assassination of Villavicencio, the rest of the presidential candidates have proposed various solutions to combat the rising gang violence. The solutions reflect the larger debate in South America regarding the same. There are two main camps: the tolerant and El Salvadorian methods. The tolerant method focuses on the root cause of the rise in gang violence and holds the leaders of the gangs accountable. In some regions, it also includes peacefully working with rebels and gangs to reduce gang violence. The El Salvadorian method introduced by President Nayib Bukele outlines using military power and combating gang violence with a "heavy hand." This approach has been heavily criticized by the UN and other human rights organizations for the indiscriminate arrests, killings and the erosion of human rights in the country. The challenge in Ecuador is to combat gang violence and outside influences, including the Albanian mafia, who provide arms and money to the gangs. 

Second, lax governmental policies. The recent killings have shed light on previous presidents' lax governmental policies, which led to the rise of gangs in Ecuador. The 2009 decision by former President Rafael Correa not to extend the lease of a US military base in Manta left a gap in Ecuador-Colombia border protection, making it easier for drugs to enter the country. Former President Lenín Moreno largely focused on clearing Ecuador's foreign debt. Moreno introduced budget cuts where he slashed spending on prisons and police, which weakened Ecuador's security.

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