In recent years, the governments in Ecuador have not been able to get away from the public order problems that have emerged especially in prisons. Riots, rebellions and guards taken hostage have been constant topics on the country’s agenda. Early elections were organised in the summer of last year when the previous president, Guillermo Lasso (2021-2023), dissolved the Parliament, which he had disagreed with due to the public order problems caused by the increasingly powerful drug gangs, as well as the violent incidents and other social unrest caused by the dominance of gangs in prisons.
Presidential candidate Villavicencio killed after rally
A week or two before the first round of the elections, the murder of Fernando Villavicencio, a presidential candidate with a journalist background, who had declared the fight against corruption and drug gangs as the main goal of his political programme and built his campaign on this struggle, in the middle of the street by hired killers after a rally in the capital, caused great surprise and uneasiness both inside and outside the country. This daring murder drew the attention of the region and the world to the Andean country. In the presidential elections that went to a second round, the questions of how security and public order would be ensured and how gangs would be fought dominated the agenda. With the effect of political murder, conservative liberal candidate Daniel Noboa left his leftist rival Luisa Gonzalez behind, was elected president at the age of 36, and took office in November.
Ecuador has surrendered to gangs in the last 10 years
In Latin America, cocaine is produced in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia and exported to the USA and Europe via different routes. Ecuador, once a country of peace and tranquility located on the shores of the Pacific Ocean between Colombia and Peru, has recently become an export port for cocaine produced in neighbouring countries. Ecuador has become a favourite destination for drug-related criminal networks as a result of the infiltration of law enforcement, judiciary, prison administrations, politicians and port administrations by drug gangs, which have strengthened considerably in the last 10 years, and have captured key officials through bribery, threats and violence. According to 2023 figures, there are 22 gangs in the country with a total of 20,000 members. Last year, 7800 people lost their lives in gang and drug-related violence. The number of deaths in inter-gang fights, rebellion, resistance and hostage-taking incidents occurring only in prisons approached 500.
Mexican and Colombian cartels are behind the gangs
The biggest gangs are Los Choneros and Los Lobos. Behind Los Choneros we find the famous Mexican drug cartel Sinaloa. This gang also cooperates with the leading cartel “Clan del Golfo” of neighbouring Colombia. Los Lobos, which is said to have 8 thousand members, is supported by a cartel we know from Mexico: Jalisco Nueva. It is known that the activities of both gangs are concentrated in the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil. The leaders of these gangs, despite being in prison, are in privileged conditions, running their organisations from behind bars.
When Daniel Noboa wanted to bring order and discipline to prisons.
The young president, who came to office promising peace and order to the electorate, was presented with a picture of a country reminiscent of the “narco-state” summarised above. What happened was that Daniel Noboa wanted to start by transferring the gang leaders in prison to other prisons where discipline and public authority were strong.
Upon hearing the news, “Fito”, the famous leader of Los Choneros, not only escaped from prison, but also terrorised the streets, the streets were chaotic, shops were closed and schools were closed. The gang members took over a television channel and made the announcer read their threatening messages. Upon these developments, the president declared a state of emergency in the country for 6 months and said that Ecuador was in a state of civil war. He ordered the army to neutralise the gangs considered terrorist organisations. In other words, a war was declared against the gangs through the armed forces.
Mexico failed to achieve results with military methods
There are countless applications, research and studies on the fight against drug cartels in Latin America. What do we see in Mexico, the land of cartels? The harsh policy of eliminating criminal gangs through the use of the army (2006) has not yielded results in this country. The ringleaders of the cartels were caught, convicted, some were handed over to US justice, but the gangs did not disappear. On the contrary, the number of gangs increased, new gangs and new leaders emerged. Even Manuel Lopez Obrador (June 2018-2024), who is considered the most popular president of the last 20-25 years, has not succeeded in eliminating drug-related crime in Mexico.
The example of Colombia
The right solution in the fight against drug cartels is now known:To eliminate the reasons that push people to become gang members, to help the unemployed through social policies, to increase employment, to eliminate income injustice, while ensuring public order. Another important issue is the elimination of the culture of impunity, the independence of the judiciary, and the conditions in which prosecutors can work without fear. In Colombia, we remember that a peace agreement was reached with the terrorist organisation FARC in 2016, thus ushering in a new era for the country.However, the conservative government that came to power afterwards (Ivan Duqué) neglected the implementation of the peace agreement and the targeted peaceful environment could not be achieved.President Gustavo Petro, a former FARC member who won the 2022 elections, is taking care to implement the 2016 peace agreement on the one hand, and on the other hand, he is carrying out a comprehensive peace offensive by sitting at the table with other terrorist organisations.Let us hope that he will be successful and bring peace to his country.
The example of El Salvador and Nayib BukeleWhile Colombia is prioritising social peace in its struggle, in another Central American country we are watching the military suppression of gangs:In El Salvador, there are no more gang members, almost all of them have been imprisoned, brand new and very large prisons have been built for this purpose, and the support of the people for the government, which has regained peace and security, has increased.Peace has returned to El Salvador, one of the “Northern Triangle Countries” notorious for its high crime rate.The leader whose popularity has skyrocketed is the young and eccentric president Nayib Bukele, who attracted attention with his legalisation of bitcoin.There is an increase in the number of countries that are keen on the harsh policies of Bukele, who has always been the centre of attention with his different solutions.We are receiving news that Xiomara Castro, the leftist president of neighbouring Honduras, has also started to favour military methods.
Ecuador is watching El SalvadorThe example of El Salvador may be behind last week’s mobilisation of the army against drug gangs in Ecuador.There is also the possibility that the young conservative leader Daniel Noboa, like Ivan Duqué’s Colombia or the Mexico of the last 20 years, will not be able to achieve results through military means.On the other hand, it is well known that human rights violations increase when security is prioritised and overriding.In this context, it should be expected that complaints about rights and law will increase in Ecuador in the coming period.
The superpower USA is the address for both problems and solutions
The most fundamental problem of Latin America is, of course, security; problems such as poverty, unemployment, income inequality and inequality of opportunity follow. The most afflicted people of the continent, who suffer from poverty on the one hand and life safety problems on the other, see salvation in the USA and migrate to the land of opportunity after a dangerous and very troublesome journey. The sight of thousands of adventurers crossing Mexico in pathetic human caravans is televised and heartbreaking.Last year the number of would-be migrants reached 2.5 million. As long as the US, the world’s superpower, remains an extraordinarily lucrative market for Latin America’s drug cartels, the cross-border drug trade will be difficult to prevent.On the one hand, the USA is the land of salvation and dreams, but on the other hand it remains the source of security and public order problems for the peoples of Latin America.