Widely depicted in recent years as a peaceful and stable country, Ecuador plunged into chaos after New Year’s Day, ignited by the disappearance from prison of Jose Adolfo Macías Villamar, the leader of Los Choneros, the country’s largest and most dangerous crime syndicate and drug cartel. President Daniel Noboa declared a “state of emergency” on January 8, after which armed gang members stormed a TV station, broadcasting to the entire country unprecedented threats and acts of violence. The situation quickly escalated to widespread prison riots, explosions, kidnappings, hostage-takings, and gang attacks.
More ominously, the escalating crisis in Ecuador is far from country specific. The phenomenon of “narcopolitics,” in which criminal groups trafficking in drugs destined for the United States and elsewhere infiltrate politics, is a fast-spreading trend in Latin America, endangering neighboring Colombia and Brazil. Criminal groups in other countries may be encouraged by the violence in Ecuador to follow a similar script, aggravating the political turmoil already on the rise in Latin America.
The violence this month forced President Noboa, only 34 years old when he took office in November, to declare a state of internal armed conflict, akin to admitting that the country was in civil war. Days later, the young president used the premise of civil war to invoke the powers of the military to deploy troops and police forces to combat Ecuador’s violent criminal groups to track down the escaped gang leader Macías.
How did the country get to this point? International media has presented Ecuador as suddenly turning violent, but the reality is far different. Over the past several years, this small country, squeezed between Colombia and Peru, has had its share of political and social turmoil. During the pandemic, horrific scenes of people dying in the streets of Guayaquil from lack of oxygen in hospitals flooded the international news coverage alongside the country’s mounting economic and political crisis.
In 2022, Ecuador’s embattled president, Guillermo Lasso, vowed to slash fuel prices after mass demonstrations brought the country to a halt. Ecuador is an oil-exporting country beset by disputes between native peoples and oil companies over the environment and the right to exploit indigenous lands for fossil fuel production. The lack of trust in Lasso’s government and corruption allegations led to impeachment proceedings in 2023, in turn leading Lasso to invoke the muerte cruzada, or “mutual death,” a constitutional maneuver that allows a president undergoing impeachment to dissolve the National Assembly and call for snap elections.
The snap elections in November brought Noboa to power. He now has 15 months to complete Lasso’s term, which would have expired in 2025. Long before he came to power, though, Ecuador was already showing signs of the violence that engulfed his now nascent government.
Ecuador’s geographic location places it in the center of a strategic drug transit route for Colombian and Peruvian cocaine. Ecuador does not produce cocaine, but its size and location make it ideal for shipping the drug out to the United States and other major markets. For many years, the notorious Colombian revolutionary forces known as FARC dominated the drug routes in Ecuador, keeping local crime groups at bay. With its base in Colombia, the powerful FARC had no interest in Ecuadorean politics. That situation began to change in 2016, when the Colombian Peace Accord with the FARC, orchestrated by Juan Manuel Santos’ government in Bogotá, demobilized the massive criminal group, giving some of their members the right to political participation in Colombia. When the demobilized FARC departed from Ecuador, a vacuum opened in the distribution and transportation of cocaine.
Violence in Ecuador then escalated as different criminal organizations fought for prominence in the lucrative illegal business of moving drugs out of South America. Because the exit of the FARC coincided with falling oil prices in international markets for Ecuadorean oil, an ensuing economic crisis bolstered the ability of criminal groups to take charge of drug operations. To make matters worse, Ecuador’s dismal fiscal situation meant the government had no financial capacity to halt these groups’ activities.
Adding to Ecuador’s problems is its formally dollarized economy. The country adopted the greenback in 2000 after serial financial crises eroded confidence in the country’s currency. The dollarization, combined with falling dollar revenues associated with declining oil exports, tightened the government’s financial power, a boon to narcotraffickers because the drug trade is entirely denominated in dollars. Ironically, dollarization made it easier to move money around without arousing suspicion, a lesson that should not be lost on Argentina and other countries in the region contemplating a move to the US currency. These steps set the stage for the economic and political expansion of drug gangs, some of which have transnational ties in the region.
As a result of all these forces coming together, it is easy to understand how the recent events in Ecuador could be replicated in other countries in the region. Take Brazil. The largest South American country has borders with Colombia, Peru, and the arguably narco-state of Venezuela under its authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro. The northern area of Brazil known as Tres Fronteras comprises the city of Tabatinga in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, but it also abuts territory in the city of Letícia in Colombia and Santa Rosa de Yavarí in Peru. This region is dominated by illegal loggers tied to narcotraffickers operating out of the three countries, as well as Ecuador (see map below).
The problem of narcotraffickers infiltrating politics and security forces, as is already the case in Ecuador, is also a reality in the northern states of Brazil, as well as in some southern states, such as Rio de Janeiro. Alleged ties between Brazil's former president Jair Bolsonaro, the militias that back him, and other criminal groups are one example of how deeply rooted criminal organizations have become in many Latin American societies. This geographically widespread phenomenon makes efforts to tame the problem almost impossible. Neither confrontation nor any kind of negotiation is feasible. How can one negotiate with parties spread throughout a maze of criminal factions?
Latin America urgently needs regional cooperation to identify transnational criminal groups operating within their borders. Its leaders must figure out how to prevent these groups from overtaking political and other institutional structures. Seen from this angle, the Ecuadorean conflagration highlights a horrific aspect of risks to democracy in the region, one that has been overlooked for much too long.
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