From drug routes to Bukele’s influence: Keys to the security crisis in Ecuador

The violence sweeping the country has intensified after two criminals operating for the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels escaped prison

Marines guard prisoners at the Litoral Regional Prison in Guayaquil on Jan. 8.
Francesco Manetto

In Ecuador, it takes just a second for a spark to turn into a fire. This has been the case for years and is seen in politics, social protests and, above all, in security. That’s why the state of emergency — decreed on Monday by President Daniel Noboa in an effort to crack down on organized crime — is not in of itself such a drastic measure. Former president Guillermo Lasso applied the same measure 20 times in just two and a half years.

Indeed, the frequency with which Ecuador was under a state of emergency illustrates the severity of the security crisis gripping the South American country. Each spark triggers a new fire, and each fire adds to the previous one, until authorities are completely overwhelmed, which is what happened in Ecuador. The country’s main criminal gangs — at war for control of drug routes while at war with the state — have been sowing terror across the country. The violence has escalated so much that Noboa — who took office at the end of November — has had to go one step further: recognizing the existence of an “internal armed conflict” and ordering military intervention. These are some keys to one of the biggest security emergencies in Latin America.

Prison escapes spark chain of attacks

The day of chaos, abuse and violence on Tuesday — which saw a group of armed, masked men storm an Ecuadorian TV station — was sparked after the leaders of two rival gangs escaped prison. On Sunday, authorities reported that José Adolfo Macías Villamar, alias Fito, considered Ecuador’s most dangerous criminal, had vanished from a prison in Guayaquil. Fito — who is the leader of the criminal gang Los Choneros, which works for Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel — first made headlines in August last year when presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated. Villavicencio had campaigned against the rise of organized crime, and denounced threats from criminal groups. Before his murder, the politician said that he had been threatened by Fito. Villavicencio said it was “a warning that if I keep mentioning him and his structure, they will attack me or try to kill me.”

José Adolfo Macías Villamar (aka Fito), the leader of the Los Choneros gang, on August 12, 2023.
José Adolfo Macías, alias Fito, the leader of Los Choneros, on August 12, 2023.Fuerzas Armadas Ecuador

After Fito’s escape, Fabricio Colón Pico — a member of the rival gang Los Lobos, linked to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) — also fled prison. The situation led to large police deployments, which sparked a chain of attacks aimed at getting the security forces to withdraw. At least 10 people, including two police officers, were killed in one day. It was a message of open defiance from the gangs and has paved the way for an incipient war against the state.

Security crisis

The security crisis in Ecuador worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic, when Ecuadorian criminal gangs gained ground and the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG increased their presence in the country. Their goal is to take control of the Guayaquil metropolitan area, the country’s most populous city and a key port for international drug trafficking routes that start in the jungles of Colombia and the Andean region and reach the United States and Europe. Prisons are a crucial base of operations for this business, which would not survive without the cocktail of misery, structural corruption and rivalry between competing groups. Prison riots have skyrocketed since the 2021 massacre, when 79 prisoners were decapitated in the Litoral Penitentiary.

But the violence behind bars is also being reflected in the streets, where millions of people live in fear. The statistics are unprecedented: 40 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, numbers that used to be seen during Venezuela’s deadliest years.

The temptation of Bukele’s authoritarian model

On Tuesday night, Admiral Jaime Vela Erazo, head of the joint command of the Armed Forces of Ecuador, broadcast a message alongside key officials in which he stated that the 20 criminal structures operating in the country had “become a military objective.” The people of Ecuador, who went to the polls last year amid the shock over Villavicencio’s murder, are demanding a strong response from the authorities. President Noboa, a 36-year-old neoliberal politician, announced a plan called Phoenix, but did not reveal any more details.

Amid the crisis in Ecuador, attention has turned to Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador, who managed to weaken criminal gangs, but did so at the expense of human rights and fundamental freedoms. “We have already completed conversations with international groups that built the prisons in El Salvador,” Noboa said a few days ago, promising that construction would begin in January. What’s more, during the electoral campaign, Noboa promised to purchase prison ships to isolate the most dangerous criminals by sending them 75 miles offshore. And while the most radical political sectors step up the debate on relaxing controls on weapons sales, which were already eased under Lasso, international human rights organizations have reminded Noboa that he must take action to curb the crisis.

“We are following with immense concern the serious acts of violence committed by criminal gangs. To confront organized crime, Ecuador needs to strengthen its judicial capacity, control prisons, and investigate money laundering and corruption,” said Juanita Goebertus, director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch (HRW). “The decision to characterize a context as an internal armed conflict must always be technical and based on international humanitarian law. Otherwise, the rights of citizens are put at risk,” she warned.

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