Drug wars threaten Ecuador’s stability ahead of election

On a recent spring morning in the city of Esmeraldas on Ecuador’s Pacific coast, the sound of gunfire filled the air. About 30 men arrived on speedboats and murdered nine workers before fleeing last month, in a chilling reminder that the country is no longer safe.

Drug-related violence in the form of prison massacres, shoot-outs at funerals and dismembered bodies is becoming a grim daily reality for Ecuador, which until a few years ago was a relatively tranquil haven between violent neighbours Colombia and Peru.

Now traffickers from those two nations — the world’s largest cocaine producers — along with rivals from Mexico and Albania have expanded into the once stable country to consolidate distribution routes, terrorising the population.

With a snap election due in August, the wave of bloodshed looks set to dominate the campaign. Nearly two-thirds of Ecuadoreans cite security as their biggest concern, according to local pollster Perfiles de Opinión.

“Ecuador is not prepared for this violence, and the security forces and the general population don’t know how to react,” said María Teresa Escobar, who runs the political website Primicias. “Before it was so safe that people didn’t think about crime and would leave their doors unlocked.”

The nation’s per capita murder rate has surpassed that of Mexico and Brazil, with more than 4,800 homicides in the nation of 18mn last year, almost double the rate of the year before and quadruple that of 2018, according to the interior ministry.

The surge in violence follows the expansion of cartels into Ecuador, where port security is relatively lax and a steep drop in living standards in the Covid pandemic led to a steady supply of recruits for gangs.

“People want to see a candidate who steps into the ring from day one with a defined and strong message on security policy,” said Will Freeman, fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The crime wave blighted the two-year-old administration of conservative president Guillermo Lasso, who last week avoided an impeachment trial by dissolving congress, triggering elections for congress and the presidency.

Lasso denied the charges of embezzlement behind the impeachment trial, which related to a contract signed three years before his presidency began, and said they distracted the government from tackling the crime wave. 

Despite receiving plaudits for a debt restructuring deal with China and the country’s Covid vaccination campaign, Lasso was often attacked by the opposition-controlled congress for his inability to contain the violence.

Ana Belén Cordero, a former lawmaker and ally of Lasso, said the level of violent crime met the criteria of “crisis and internal commotion” needed to use the so-called “mutual death” clause of the constitution that permitted the closure of congress.

Guillermo Lasso last week avoided an impeachment trial by dissolving congress, triggering elections © Felipe Stanly/Agencia Press South/Getty Images

Elections for president and congress will take place on August 20. If no candidate for president receives more than 50 per cent of the vote, a run-off will take place on October 15.

Rating agency Fitch this week changed its outlook for Ecuador from stable to negative, citing ongoing political instability. It said the outbreak of crime would require increased government spending.

Fernando Villavicencio, the first candidate to declare his intention to run, said tackling well-financed mafias would be his core message.

“Ecuador is practically submerged in organised crime,” Villavicencio, a centrist former journalist and legislator, told the FT. He said that if elected, he and the security forces would tackle the financiers of criminals “with the constitution in one hand and a gun in the other”.

The wave of violence is concentrated in coastal regions, where gangs fight over ports and distribution routes, but in the capital Quito, high in the Andes, fear of crime permeates daily life. 

Line chart of number of murders per month nationally, showing homicides in Ecuador have quadrupled since 2018

When night falls, streets that usually teem with life and commerce are quiet. Shops are shuttered, while armed private security personnel patrol outside restaurants and hotels. Companies selling body armour and bullet-proofing for vehicles report a roaring trade.

“You can’t walk around at night here, and you can’t carry a wallet or wear jewellery,” said Patricia Mayancela, who owns a small grocery shop in the south of Quito. Her customers dwindled after she was forced to cut opening hours, closing two hours earlier than before to keep herself and her store safe.

The police are unequipped and untrained to deal with violent crime. The military — recently empowered by Lasso’s designation of criminal gangs as terrorist organisations — can be deployed, though analysts say that generals are wary of wading into turf wars between traffickers.

The US ambassador to Ecuador, Michael Fitzpatrick, told local media two years ago he was concerned about “narco-generals” in the security forces.

Following the massacre in Esmeraldas, Lasso ordered 2,000 soldiers to patrol its streets. Three cartel members were arrested in connection with the killing.

Alberto Acosta-Burneo, a prominent economist, said the campaign rhetoric around a crime wave could “open the door” to an authoritarian government. 

Supporters of President Guillermo Lasso protest in Quito
Supporters of President Guillermo Lasso protest in Quito © Galo Paguay/AFP/Getty Images

Ecuador has taken authoritarian turns in the past, most recently during the presidency of socialist Rafael Correa, from 2007-2017, who deployed security forces to quell dissent while taking a permissive approach to drug trafficking. Correa lives in Belgium to avoid imprisonment following a corruption conviction. No one from his movement has yet announced their candidacy in this year’s election.

At least two potential candidates appear to take their cues from Nayib Bukele, the strongman president of El Salvador who has won admirers across Latin America for his crackdown on gangs, despite criticism of his human rights record.

One of them, Otto Sonnenholzner — an independent former vice-president from the crime-ridden port city of Guayaquil — has previously taken advice from Victor López, a Spanish political operative who worked on Bukele’s campaign.

Another candidate, Jan Topic — a political neophyte who says he served as a soldier in Ukraine and Syria — has not hidden his admiration for the Salvadoran president.

“Nayib Bukele has that mettle, that determination to get things done and done well, in an incorruptible way,” he told US media. “And this is what we are going to do.”

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