Ecuador's puzzle, explained

Ecuador faces an unprecedented security crisis, with homicide and crime rates at historic levels. While the Noboa administration's strategy has succeeded in drastically reducing homicides, many questions have been raised about its long-term viability and effectiveness. From militarisation to marginalisation, we explore the causes, consequences and possible future of this crisis.

Words: Eva Fernández Martín  Editor: Josefina Salomón Ilustration: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla 

“Desperate times call for desperate measures”, the famous phrase goes, and it could as well be the inspiration for Ecuador’s President Daniel Noboa, who is taking a leaf out of El Salvador Nayib Buleke’s “tough on crime” book to tackle his own country’s security crisis. The “Plan Fénix” promised to eradicate the cycle of violence by militarising the streets and prisons. Has it worked? We explore the causes of a crisis that has already crossed borders, the stories of the people it affects, and the prospects for the future.

What is happening?

Record violence. Ecuador, traditionally known as the “Island of Peace”, has experienced a rapid escalation of violence and crime, so much so that it has become the 11th country with the highest crime rate in the world, according to an index developed by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime. Between 2017 and 2022, homicides increased by an alarming 574%, reaching a rate of 47 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2023 – much of which has taken place in the city of Guayaquil, the epicentre of the crisis. Its strategic location between Colombia and Peru, the main cocaine-producing countries, coupled with the fact that it is home to some of South America’s largest ports, has made Ecuador a key point in the global drug trade. The death of key leaders and internal disputes between local groups, such as Los Choneros, which until recently dominated criminal markets with some degree of cohesion and control, has resulted in a fragmentation that has translated into violent competition for control of strategic territories and resources. This has opened the door to transnational groups, such as Mexican cartels, seeking to expand their influence in the Ecuadorian drug market. Corruption, the weakness of the judicial system and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have facilitated these dynamics.

State of emergency. At the beginning of 2024, Ecuador’s president, Daniel Noboa, declared a state of emergency and, for the first time in the country’s history, an “internal armed conflict“. It was in response to spiralling violence that culminated in the takeover of a live television station, the escape of a criminal gang leader from a prison, a series of riots inside jails, and attacks on public institutions and the army. Initially planned for 60 days, the state of emergency was extended for another 30 days due to persistent violence. The measures authorised security forces to launch operations against 22 criminal gangs, designated as “terrorist groups”. It also allowed joint military and police action on the streets and in prisons, many of which were controlled by criminal gangs. Three months later, the self-styled “Noboa way” had succeeded in reducing the homicide rate by 60 per cent nationally. But there was a cost. Human rights organisations have denounced cases of torture in prisons, forced genetic sampling of detainees, and excessive use of force by the military.

Behind the iron fist. Despite these controversies, Noboa enjoys an 80 per cent approval rating. According to Glaeldys González Calanche, fellow of the International Crisis Group’s Latin America programme, many Ecuadorians feel helpless in the face of the widespread corruption that permeates the judicial system, the military, the police and local governments, as evidenced, among others, by the Metástasis case. “This discrediting of the state apparatus has served to ensure that ‘tough on crime’ policies have this support, this tolerance,” he says and warns that, despite the reduction in homicides, the government continues to face challenges because “criminal logic moves much faster than governmental logic”. Indeed, the increase in extortion and kidnappings, as well as in the expansion of criminal activities into new areas of the country shows that criminal groups have been able to adapt to these new security measures.

"criminal logic moves much faster than governmental logic". Indeed, the increase in extortion and kidnappings, as well as in the expansion of criminal activities into new areas of the country shows that criminal groups have been able to adapt to these new security measures.

Who is mainly affected?

Young people and children. They suffer disproportionately from the security crisis. At least two youth were killed every day in 2023 and the number of homicides of people under 19 increased by 640% since 2019, according to UNICEF data. In addition, criminal gangs take advantage of the context of lack of educational and employment opportunities to recruit young people. Initially, they start with surveillance tasks and gradually become involved in more dangerous activities, such as transporting and selling drugs, extortion and, in the worst cases, contract killings, according to InSight Crime. Girls are also recruited for sexual exploitation and to serve as partners for gang leaders.

Marginalised communities. In other cases, criminal gangs have become a kind of “employer” in impoverished communities where State presence is weak and basic services are scarce. The expert González Calanche explains that “the working conditions of formal jobs, especially those to which these people could aspire, are very poor, especially in the shrimp and banana business”. This is how marginalised communities, especially Afro-Ecuadorians, turn to criminal organisations that offer weekly payments in exchange for various services, such as surveillance or to store drugs.

Local politicians. In the past year, four local officials were killed, including the mayor of San Vicente municipality, Brigitte García, and her communications director, Jairo Loor, in a shootout in Manabí province. More than 30 other officials received threats, according to data published by El País. At least 50 mayors have requested police protection, according to data published by Primicias, and 30 have already received it.



What are the prospects for the future?

Expansion. González Calanche says that the end, or at least the easing, of restrictions following the state of emergency and the upcoming referendum on 21 April could lead to an increase in violence by criminal groups that could seek to discredit the changes proposed by the government, especially in terms of facilitating extradition agreements and the permanent presence of the armed forces in prisons. If the security proposals included in the public consultation are accepted, they would take time to be implemented. González Calanche points out that this temporary vacuum could be exploited by criminal groups to adapt and continue their operations, especially drug trafficking.

Regional cooperation. This is a crucial element in tackling organised crime, and its impact, in Ecuador. “There has been a lot of progress in terms of military cooperation, and I think that’s very important, especially in terms of information exchange, where there is a big gap,” says González Calanche. However, the breakdown of diplomatic relations with Mexico, after Ecuador arrested Jorge Glas, the former vice president who was being held in the Mexican embassy, could hinder these efforts. Links between major Ecuadorian criminal groups and Mexican cartels further complicate the situation.

Elections 2025. The big question is how Noboa, and his security approach, will get to the presidential elections next February. “So far the government has had fairly solid legislative support, very watertight,” says González Calanche but she points out that once the election campaign starts, the cracks will inevitably deepen which could weaken the official response to crime. “The current government will seek to capitalise on its achievements to ensure its re-election,” she concluded. The question is whether that will be enough.