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Criminal mining, militarization and Indigenous challenges in the Ecuadorian crisis

The government is faced with the task of comprehensively addressing these problems in the face of the voices and concerns of Indigenous communities and other affected sectors

Ecuador violencia
Ecuadorian troops during a surveillance patrol in Guayaquil, on January 15.IVAN ALVARADO (Reuters)

It was not with surprise, but with regret that I witnessed the recent wave of news about the violence taking place in Ecuador’s cities. Just three weeks ago, I returned from the country, where I had started filming my next documentary. At a global level, Ecuador is seen as a nation on the edge of a social abyss, with consequences that are spreading throughout the country. These are especially impacting the most vulnerable sectors of the countryside and the cities: the impoverished and historically discriminated against; Indigenous, Black and mountain communities; the fishing and gathering communities of the mangroves and peasants of the sierra and the coast.

The complex reality facing Ecuador today is a supposed state of “internal armed conflict,“ officially declared as such by the government to justify an internal war against criminal organizations. This is the result of a large and painful tearing of Ecuador’s social fabrics and a state dissolving into a morass of corruption. Most particularly, however, it is the result of an extractive and export model of development that has been in place for over more than fifty years and has greatly intensified over the past two decades and four governments. This model has corrupted Ecuador’s institutions, which have been captureed by special interest groups linked to extraction and exportation.

Ecuador’s recent implosion and the intervention of armed forces to stop the escalation of violence seeks to employ warfare to stop the violence that is expanding like wildfire across the country. This military response is backed by the force of law, with all the social complications this entails. It may contain organized crime, eliminating criminals and gangs from the streets, which will produce a sense of relief among the population and boost the government’s popularity. However, this will not solve the root problems leading to crime, because the criminal organizations and their roots are in fact deeply embedded in the Ecuadorian state itself. The country’s highest officials in the justice system, security forces, the National Assembly, and in the political parties, are truly “Camorras” that support criminal conduct as ethical. The Ecuadorian economy is, in fact, nourished by this systematic and semi-institutionalized corruption. Over the last few decades, three Ecuadorian presidents have been prosecuted for corruption, along with more than a dozen senior officials, vice-presidents, ministers, auditors, inspectors, generals, judges, directors, and bureaucrats have been prosecuted and sentenced for corruption (some in absentia).

Despite bringing economic stability, dollarization also created favorable conditions for trafficking, money laundering and the drug trade. This has converted Ecuador into a suitable territory for drug trafficking, vulnerable to the corruption this trade brings with it. The infiltration of drug traffickers into the Ecuadorian state is evident, for example, in the so-called “metastasis case,” an investigation carried out by the Attorney General. This resulted in the arrest of senior officials such as the president of the Consejo de la Judicatura (Judiciary Council), the highest administrative authority of the country’s courts, which has presumably used its position to favor members of criminal groups linked to the drug economy.

Faced with the depth of the prison crisis and the on-going conflict, the categorization of organized criminal groups as terrorists, the militarization of the country, and war have been the government’s main proposals. These are being questioned by organizations and experts who warn that these initiatives will only strengthen the narcos, increasing conflicts and violence in the affected areas and especially in provinces like Esmeraldas and Guayas.

Over the last quarter century, Ecuador has gone from being a country drugs passed through, to a country where drugs are stored, to a country where drugs are bought, sold, prepared and exported and money is laundered. In recent years, Ecuador has been the main drug exporting country for the European trade. The capital generated by drugs is washed through Ecuador’s financial system, mainly through construction and through the government’s main economic venture: mining.

On the other hand, there is also criminal mining being carried out by groups that are linked to drug trafficking. This activity has filtered into Indigenous and peasant communities, becoming a focus of conflict that has reached into the Amazon, the southern mountains, and even the coast, reigniting numerous long simmering territorial disputes. The militarization proposed by the government to combat this problem will probably not solve it. Instead, it threatens to widen social gaps and will affect the most vulnerable groups, such as Indigenous and peasant communities.

Criminal mining activities in Ecuador financed by criminal groups such as Los Choneros and Los Lobos are on the rise and represent a serious threat to the country’s security and its sensitive ecosystems. This has become one of the main financing sources for these criminal organizations, bankrolling their acquisition of high-quality heavy weapons. The militarization of the territories affected by criminal mining will intensify even more in the current internal war imposed by the Ecuadorian government.

In Brazil, criminal factions from Río de Janeiro and São Paulo have infiltrated the Brazilian Amazon, co-opting locals and Indigenous people. Drug trafficking seeks to control drug transport routes, affecting local communities. On the border with Peru, the Shaninka people face persistent threats. In addition to long-standing problems with Peruvian logging, drug trafficking persists and has intensified in the region, using Native communities as “resupply” points. State absence makes local Indigenous populations vulnerable to criminal violence. Indigenous leaders are resisting threats that have evolved through increasingly intimidating tactics. In the cities of the Amazon, urban violence has expanded into communities, which are seeing an increase in assaults and robberies. Meanwhile, drug trafficking has infiltrated various economic activities in the region to launder illicit money.

The expansion of so-called illicit activities will always require legal cover, which provides certainty and continuity to economic activities. The State and its political, legal and security institutions, necessarily become targets for cooptation and control. Therefore, in the political space, certain parties have been co-opted by criminal mafias, or have been converted into safe areas from which organized crime can operate to influence politics. The assassination of an Ecuadorian presidential candidate five months ago is part of this struggle for control over the State: a warning that the government must be on the side of the criminal organizations and not working against them.

Meanwhile, the Ecuadorian government has promoted a popular plebiscite, apparently intended (among other things) to regain control of the territories where illegal mining is taking place. This, however, generates questions about the real understanding of the conflicts surrounding criminal mining and the effectiveness and clarity of the government’s strategy to solve the problem. This seems to be concentrated on favoring the business sectors involved in mining without settling the legitimate grievances of the local populations affected by these activities. This lack of coherence in government action increases uncertainty about the future of Ecuador, especially in relation to the management of violence and its impacts on Indigenous and peasant communities.

In this context, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) and environmental and human rights organizations have called for the defense of territorial and cultural rights. Representing eleven nationalities and 25 towns, CONFENIAE has historically led the fight for the defense of the territory and the rights of Indigenous communities. In its recent statement, issued on January 5 on Facebook, the Confederation vehemently rejected the “Plano Fénix” proposed by President Daniel Noboa, his no-holds barred strategy to face the situation country’s current security crisis.

The “Plano Fénix” seeks to establish a maximum security mega-prison in the Amazonian province of Pastaza. This has generated concern and opposition from CONFENIAE. The Confederation’s recent pronouncement highlights the violation of rights regarding prior, free, and informed consultation, and the consent of the nationalities that inhabit Pastaza. It also criticizes the historical exploitation of the Ecuadorian Amazon by past and current governments, which have extracted natural resources under the false promise of progress, causing profound environmental and health damage.

CONFENIAE emphasizes that Indigenous territories should not become “sacrifice zones” amidst the Ecuador’s security crisis. The construction of more prisons, as proposed in the “Plano Fénix”, does not address the structural causes of social injustice and inequality. The lack of transparency in President Noboa’s statements regarding the penitentiary project generates additional doubts and concerns. Indigenous communities cannot be pushed to the side in the government’s attempts to address these challenges. Given that Ecuador’s Indigenous and rural peoples are likely find themselves on the front line of Noboa’s war, they must have a seat at the decision-making table in designing solutions.

Impacts on Indigenous and peasant communities

The risks associated with illegal mining and militarization as a response are especially worrying for Indigenous communities, especially in the territories of the Shuar nation and in rural communities of southern Ecuador. Militarization weakens collective rights to self-determination and self-government, which also generates environmental concerns.

Government plans could very well convert those territories of Indigenous communities afflicted with illegal mining into key points of conflict, confrontation, and struggle between the armed forces and criminal groups. This probable scenario implies social risks for these communities and has ecological consequences, as these territories are rich in biodiversity and sensitive ecosystems.

The plebiscite has received well-founded criticism, generating serious concerns about the government’s capacity to address the complexity of the current situation. The government’s goal of regaining control of the security situation in different territories may clash with reality, especially if the popular consultation is not translated into effective actions. The lack of clarity in governmental strategies and inclinations is leading to a policy of confrontation and militarization that generates uncertainty and strong concerns about the future of Ecuador.

The risks of a war against drug trafficking

The government’s current policy for a war against drug trafficking contains significant risks. Past experiences in countries such as Mexico and Colombia demonstrate that this strategy does not eradicate drug trafficking: instead, it strengthens criminal groups and economies. The government’s very possible lack of capacity to effectively address the situation through violence and its insistence on going forward with this policy, regardless, threatens to plunge Ecuador into devastation and disintegration.

The government intends to replicate, as much as possible, the supposed success of the “Bukele model” as a panacea for the Ecuador’s situation. Meanwhile, experts have warned that this is neither recommended nor even possible. Measures such as the construction of mega-prisons do not address the structural issues Ecuador faces and, in fact, run the risk of deepening them.

One of the latest government decisions has been to remit an emergency bill to the National Assembly of Ecuador that intends to raise the country’s VAT from 12% to 15%. This measure intends to increase sales taxes to raise money to finance the president’s war policy. The bill now rests in the hands of a legislative branch that has previously expressed its support for the President in his fight against drug trafficking. Congress is being put to the test with this bill, which has been criticized and rejected by social sectors such as the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and which is an unpopular measure.

The government has decided to transfer the cost of its war to the population via sales taxes which unfairly impact upon the most impoverished populations. Meanwhile, however, the government has also decided to grant, on own initiative, forgiveness to large tax debtors, including companies belonging to the President’s family, one of the richest in the country and region.

A call to reflection and action

Amid these challenges, we must reflect upon the impact of the Ecuadorian president’s new policies on minorities, especially Indigenous and peasant communities. The Ecuadorian elite and other privileged sectors can maintain their status and improve their security conditions, but the government’s militaristic agenda will directly affect the country’s most vulnerable communities. How will this situation unfold and what measures will be taken to protect Ecuador’s most precarious populations? The answer to this question is vital for the future of country.

The path that Ecuador has chosen to follow will have significant consequences. Militarization, criminal mining, and confrontational politics pose substantial risks, but social resistance, solidarity, and the adoption of intelligent and pluralistic approaches can be the key to building a fairer and safer future for all communities in the country.

In response to this threat, CONFENIAE has called for a peaceful march to reject the construction of the maximum security prison in Pastaza, inviting all social sectors to unite in the name of creating a “good life.” This call for peaceful resistance highlights the importance of solidarity between the different sectors of Ecuadorian society most affected by the country’s multiple challenges.

The intersection of criminal mining, militarization, and Indigenous resistance presents a complex and critical panorama for Ecuador. The government is faced with the task of comprehensively addressing these problems in the face of the voices and concerns of Indigenous communities and other affected sectors. The path that the country chooses will have significant consequences for its future and the possibilities for the protection of its citizens.

Changing Ecuador’s direction requires confronting the threat of drug trafficking on the ground and transforming a state riddled with corruption. The lack of a comprehensive vision for the country and the prioritization of special group interests over those of the commonwealth have contributed to the current crisis. Ecuador faces an internal crisis, but is also a battling for institutional integrity and the construction of a vision for the country that is based upon its reality as a plurinational state.

As a friend and director of Ecuadorian cinema mentioned to me a couple of weeks ago, fiction has not had as much room as documentaries in the Ecuadorian cinema. The country’s current realities are very far from fiction; they are the best and most authentic Latin American cinéma vérité.

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