Ecuador: a Swift Plunge into Criminal Chaos

12 janvier 2024
Interview with Michel Gandilhon, member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the IRIS Observatoire des Criminalités Internationales (ObsCi) and associate expert in the security and defence department of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM).


At the start of 2024, history is gathering pace in Latin America, a region that has been plagued by hyperviolence for decades, a reminder of the geopolitical and not just security impact of criminal organisations when they reach a critical threshold of development. For decades, the monopoly of legitimate violence held by an ever-increasing number of states has been undermined by a myriad of groups ̶ gangs, cartels, guerrillas, paramilitaries, etc ̶ constituting an existential threat to democratic life. The toppling of the Ecuadorian domino, which until recently had been relatively unaffected by these phenomena, linked in particular to drug trafficking, which we see on a daily basis in Mexico, Venezuela and even Colombia, provides yet another tragic illustration of this. In the space of ten years, the country has become a major transit area for cocaine produced in Colombia on its way to the United States, Europe and, to a lesser extent, Asia. Surrounded by the world’s two largest cocaine producers, with a Pacific coastline that opens up to Asia to the west, the Central American Corridor ̶ giving it access to Europe via the Panama Canal ̶ and the United States to the north, Ecuador was unfortunately condemned by its geography to attract the covetousness of criminal organisations constantly on the lookout for new routes. As a result, Guayaquil, ranked among the top 100 ports in terms of goods transported, has become, like the rest of the country, the scene of a gang war for control of the docks. While it is probably still too early to speak of a failed state, the backdrop of the many political, social and security crises that the country has been experiencing over the last few years has given rise to fears of a ‘Mexicanisation’, from which it is notoriously difficult to escape once it has begun. More than ever, to borrow the title of a now classic work by Eduardo Galeano, the veins of Latin America are open. A lesson for Europe to ponder. Interview with Michel Gandilhon, member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the IRIS Observatoire des Criminalités Internationales (ObsCi) and associate expert in the security and defence department of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM).

Why has a country like Ecuador, described as a « haven of peace », descended into violence?

This violence has a relatively long history. It would be wrong to say that Ecuador was spared from drug trafficking. For some forty years, the country has been fully involved in the regional division of labour linked to cocaine production. In the 1980s, it was a transit area for the base paste that was supplied from Peru to the production laboratories in Colombia. Over the last fifteen years or so, the country has become a major transit area for cocaine destined for the United States, Europe and, to a lesser extent, Asia. This is borne out by the already substantial seizures recorded at the start of the 2010 decade: in 2012, some 42 tonnes of narcotics, mainly cocaine, were seized, compared with 26 tonnes in 2011 and 18 tonnes in 2010. In 2009, a record 68 tonnes were seized. At that time, the situation in Colombia was already having a serious impact on the country. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were using Ecuador as a fallback base, with the acquiescence of the political authorities in power at the time. Their number 2, Raul Reyes, was killed in 2008 during an aerial bombardment by the Colombian army. This triggered an intense regional crisis marked by the breakdown of diplomatic relations and the mobilisation of the army at the borders. The background to this conflict was a deep ideological rift between the Correa presidency, which had embraced Chavezian Bolivarianism, and the staunchly pro-American Uribe presidency. In terms of organised crime, cocaine trafficking was largely controlled by a dominant gang, the Choneros, formed in the 1990s, in competition with other groups such as the Cubanos and Lagartos. But the impact in terms of public security remained manageable for the State. What’s more, since the dollarisation of the economy in 2000, Ecuador has been an area for laundering illegal money from drug trafficking.

What are the factors behind this worsening situation?

External factors, first and foremost the explosion in cocaine production in Colombia. In ten years, it has increased sixfold, reaching an all-time high of more than 1,700 tonnes in 2022, according to the latest figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). A significant proportion of coca production takes place in the departments of Putumayo and Narino, on Ecuador’s northern border. It is estimated that a third of Colombian cocaine passes through the country on its way to the large port city of Guayaquil (population 2.8 million). From there, the cocaine is exported directly to Mexico or via Central America to Europe, where seizures from Ecuador are soaring. Seizures in Ecuador are also soaring: 82 tonnes in 2019; 128 tonnes in 2020; 210 tonnes in 2021; 201 tonnes in 2022; and 220 tonnes in 2023.

The internal factors are linked to the reconfiguration of local organised crime. The previously dominant organisation, the Choneros, has been challenged since the assassination of its leader in 2020 by another group, the Lobos, who have managed to federate other gangs such as the Tiguerones and the Chone killers. The federation is called Nueva Generacion (NG), like the Mexican cartel of the same name with which it has links. The Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG) is a hostile spin-off from the Sinaloa cartel and the product of a kind of merger and acquisition with the Tijuana cartel. NG is also allied with a dissident front of the FARC, the former 48th Front, and survivors of paramilitary groups, who have formed an alliance called Commandos de la Frontera, which is very active in south-west Colombia, particularly in the department of Putumayo. On the European buyer side, NG has forged links with criminal groups from the Balkans, Serbia, Montenegro and especially Albania.

As a result, the two groups are at war with each other, both in prisons and in strategic trafficking areas, particularly Guayaquil, which accounts for 40% of the country’s 18,000 homicides.

What is the situation today?

Dramatic. The speed of the deterioration is disconcerting. In the space of 5 years, from a security point of view, we have gone from a situation close to that of the USA to that of Mexico. Only worse, if you look at the homicide rates. By 2023, Ecuador, with 7,800 deaths, is likely to have become Latin America’s leading country in terms of homicide rates, well ahead of Mexico and Colombia (25 and 26 respectively per 100,000 inhabitants by 2022). Homicides have increased by almost 800% between 2018 and 2023, from 6 to 46 per 100,000 inhabitants. Prisons are the scene of recurring massacres between rival gangs. Since February 2021, there have been at least a dozen of these, resulting in more than 460 deaths among inmates. The authorities have so far proved incapable of regaining firm control. It is no exaggeration to speak of the Mexicanisation of the country. The Lobos (8,000 members) who are winning the war are clearly in the process of cartelisation: they are also attacking other sectors of activity, such as illegal mining. They are adopting the terrorist methods of the cartels: public hangings of corpses, murders of journalists and police officers. Even assassinating members of the political class. In July 2023, Agustin Intriago, mayor of the country’s second largest port, Manta, and resolutely hostile to organised crime, was assassinated. So was a candidate in the February municipal elections near the major port of Guayaquil, among many others, including Fernando Villavicencio, who ran for President of the Republic last August. It’s also reminiscent of Colombia in the 1990s, before the fall of Pablo Escobar.

How solid is the State in the face of criminal organisations?

Rafael Correa, a former President of the Republic (20007-2017), recently declared: « Ecuador has become a failed state ». He knows a thing or two about this, as corruption exploded during his presidency. To such an extent that his heir, Lenin Moreno, broke with his policy and drew closer to the USA and Colombia in order to combat drug trafficking. Correa, who in 2009 refused to renew the 10-year lease granted to the Americans in Manta, the country’s second port, where they had a military base used in the fight against drugs in the Pacific, has been disowned. In 2019, the government of President Lenin Moreno signed an agreement with the Pentagon authorising the US army to use the Galapagos island of San Cristobal as a military base. Can the State break the backs of criminal gangs? In 2006, Mexico’s new president Calderon declared war on the cartels. 17 years later, and more than 300,000 dead, the war continues. Everything will depend on the capacity of political and economic institutions to resist. Faced with an armed uprising by gangs linked to the Choneros, whose strategy is to protect the escape of their leader, José Adolfo Macías Villama, the President of the Republic declared a state of emergency on 8 January.

And what about public opinion?

In 2022, a survey showed that 75% of the population had no confidence in the police, who appear to have been infiltrated by the narcos to a very high degree. For Daniel Noboa, president without a parliamentary majority, the task looks set to be a very delicate one. All this against a backdrop of economic crisis and impoverishment compounded by the shock of the Covid epidemic, which was a sad reminder of the state of the country’s health system. While Correa’s policy of redistributing oil revenues boosted by rising prices had had a relatively positive impact on the population’s standard of living, Moreno’s neo-liberal turn, imposed by the IMF in exchange for a 6.5 billion dollar loan, has had devastating effects on the country. It is estimated that a third of the population is now living below the poverty line. The country is in the throes of violent social and political crises, with protests severely repressed by the army, resulting in dozens of deaths. The rift between the indigenous populations and the government is also an aggravating factor in Ecuador’s political tensions. For the moment, the mood is one of national unity, with Rafael Correa calling on his supporters in Brussels to support the current president in the face of what can only be described as a veritable criminal insurrection, a nationwide narco bloqueo.


Translated by Deepl.
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