GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 827, 11 January 2024

Ecuador: State of emergency, following prison riots and escape of a drug lord
Dhriti Mukherjee

In the news
On 10 January, Ecuador’s President, Daniel Noboa, announced that foreign prisoners, particularly Colombians, would be deported to cut down the prison population.

On 8 January, six jails witnessed a string of prison riots where 39 prisoners broke out and guards were taken hostage. Gangs carried out bomb attacks across the country, causing institutions to shut down. At least ten people were killed in the series of attacks. In response, Noboa declared a “state of internal armed conflict,” deployed the military to “neutralise” gangs and announced a nighttime curfew. 22 gangs were labelled as “terrorist” organisations. Declaring the 60-day emergency, Noboa stated: “The time is over when drug trafficking convicts, hitmen and organised crime dictate to the government what to do.”

On 7 January, Ecuador’s “most wanted prisoner” and drug lord, José Adolfo Macías Villamar, escaped from jail in Guayaquil before being transferred to a maximum-security prison. Villamar, also known as Fito, is the leader of the Los Choneros group which has been inflicting violence in prisons and engaging in drug trafficking. 

On 11 January, a UN spokesperson stated that the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, was “alarmed by the deteriorating security situation in Ecuador.” US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, condemned the “criminal attacks by armed groups in Ecuador against private, public, & government institutions.” 

Issues at large
First, the drug cartels. Ecuador is situated between Peru and Colombia, two of the world’s largest cocaine producers. For a long time, the country’s drug trade was controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (FARC). The demobilisation of FARC in 2016 led to clashes between drug cartels in Ecuador with the power vacuum inviting Mexican and Venezuelan cartels. Since 2018, clashes between cartels have triggered bombings, assassinations and shootouts. According to Reuters, there were 8,008 violent deaths in 2023, nearly double compared to 2022. Additionally, there have been allegations of governments abetting cartel-linked violence.

Second, the prison system crisis. The New York Times quotes unnamed security experts that one-fourth of Ecuador’s prisons are controlled by gangs. According to the country’s penitentiary service, more than 400 inmates have been killed since 2021. With guards unable to confront the gangs, inmates often operate their criminal networks while imprisoned and clash to control jails. 

Third, political instability. On 17 May 2023, the former President of Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso, disbanded the National Assembly to avoid impeachment. It left the country in a political deadlock. Additionally, the inability of the government to handle corruption worsened the political crisis. On 10 August 2023, presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, was murdered for his strong anti-corruption stance. Ecuador was ranked 93 out of 140 in terms of rule of law by the World Justice Project, a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), and 105 out of 180 in the 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International. 

Fourth, an increase in gang violence across Latin America. Throughout Latin America, particularly Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru, there is an increasing number of incidents of gang violence, drug cartels and criminal activity. Over the last decade, the regional homicide rate has risen by 3.7 per cent a year. These gangs have substantial political influence and control over the law and order. Besides, governments have failed to achieve sustainable peace. 

In perspective
First, state failure. Ecuador’s governments have repeatedly failed to address the prison crisis. By abandoning the penitentiary system, governments have allowed the prison problem to increase and suffer from a 30 per cent national overcrowding rate, a significant shortage of guards and gang rivalry within jails.

Second, a test for the new government. Despite Noboa's promise to reform prisons, critics have described his measures as an “improvisation” without benefits. Having failed while trying to transfer Fito to a maximum-security prison and with little political experience, it is uncertain if Noboa will be able to succeed in addressing the crisis. 

Third, a potential escalation in violence. The presence of gangs indicates a high risk that violence will escalate. On 9 January, Peru declared a state of emergency and deployed troops along its border with Ecuador, threatening an escalation both internal and external. 

Fourth, a rise in organised crime across Latin America. According to the International Crisis Group, “a third of all murders” globally happen in Latin America each year and most have been linked to organised crime. The geographical advantage for drug traffickers, economic hardship and prevalence of corruption have facilitated the rise in organised crime regionally.  

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