Corruption, Gangs, and Drug Crisis: Exploring the Roots of Ecuador’s Internal Armed Conflict

Photo via CNN

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On January 8, 2024, President Daniel Noboa of Ecuador declared a state of emergency and later an “internal armed conflict” for a period of 60 days. Ecuador’s security crisis is no secret, but the recent surge of violence has prompted citizens to demand swift and decisive action from their government. The government has invoked special powers to address this escalating issue, allowing for heightened security measures and military involvement to restore order and combat the threat posed by criminal elements within the country. As the conflict intensifies, there is a growing sense of urgency among the population to ensure their safety and protect the stability of their communities. You might be wondering: what are the factors that led to this sudden and intense surge in violence? 

In recent years, Ecuador’s vulnerability to drug trafficking has become increasingly evident. Ecuador’s location in the middle of Colombia and Peru—two of the world’s most popular drug importers—make the country ideal for drug trafficking. The influx of drugs into Ecuador has not only fueled domestic addiction and substance abuse problems, but has also bolstered the expansion of drug-related crimes and gangs, leading to the degradation of societal structures. The lucrative nature of the drug trade has incentivized criminal elements to exploit Ecuador’s vulnerabilities within communities, leading to increased violence, corruption, and instability.

After the leader of Los Choneros, José Adolfo Macías Villamar, known notoriously as “Fito” escaped from prison, over 30 attacks occurred in the South American country. The country’s top gang leader is on Ecuador’s most wanted list and there is a 5 million dollar reward for his capture. According to authorities, the gang regulates the trafficking of narcotics along the Pacific coast and maintains ties with Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, with whom Los Choneros have been offering security and logistical support for numerous years. The escape of such a prominent figure and the subsequent surge in violent incidents have undermined the authority of law enforcement and have instilled fear and uncertainty among the citizens of Ecuador. As the government grapples with this escalating crisis and struggles to contain the rampant crime fueled by Los Choneros, the threat of internal armed conflict looms large over the nation.

The government’s loose security and vulnerability has also influenced gangs to take over. For decades, the various presidents in office have faced accusations of corruption and a weak judicial oversight. This atmosphere of impunity and weak governance has created fertile ground for criminal syndicates to flourish, exploiting loopholes in law enforcement and infiltrating key social institutions. For instance, notorious drug cartels have established intricate smuggling routes across the Ecuadorian border, while local gangs engage in drug distribution and extortion within urban neighborhoods. Additionally, the pervasive influence of organized crime can be seen in cases of corruption among public officials, where bribery and collusion undermine efforts to combat drug trafficking and maintain social order. 

When the state of emergency was declared, the President of Ecuador had only served his term for less than two months. Because of this, citizens have questioned his ability to effectively address the escalating security crisis and maintain stability within the country. The country’s trend of a lack of effective government oversight has allowed corruption to permeate various levels of government, negatively influencing public trust and exacerbating the country’s security challenges. Consequently, criminals have capitalized on this systemic dysfunction, expanding their influence and asserting dominance over territories through coercion, violence, and intimidation among the citizens. The entrenchment of gangs within Ecuador’s socio-political landscape poses a grave threat to the rule of law, perpetuating a cycle of criminality. 

Following the declaration of the state of emergency, multiple gunmen took over a local Ecuadorian news channel during their live TV broadcast. Disturbing footage later circulated on social media picturing TV anchors, journalists and hostages brutally beaten and restrained. This attack on Ecuador’s main media outlet underscores the precarious nature of the press’s freedom and their journalistic integrity in the face of such threats. Additionally, the chilling images serve as a stark reminder of the challenges confronting Ecuador as it grapples with escalating violence. In the aftermath of this incident, citizens nationwide continue to fight for a unified effort to address the underlying causes of this persistent crisis, aspiring towards a brighter future.

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This article was edited by Margeaux Wenner and Hannah Pearce.