Ecuador is engaged in a relentless fight against drug trafficking. However, in recent times this challenge has reached worrying levels, with a growing insecurity crisis and a significant increase in violence, affecting the quality of life of millions of Ecuadorians, The New York Times reported.
Until three years ago, Ecuador was one of the least violent countries in the region. Now, Mexican and Colombian cartels have established their presence in coastal cities such as Guayaquil, where they consolidate part of the cocaine export business coming from neighboring countries, such as Colombia and Peru and bound for other countries, Argentine news site Infobae reported.
“The challenge facing Ecuador lies in the seriousness of the violence crisis it is experiencing in its contemporary history, as a result of the restructuring of transnational criminal dynamics,” Yadira Gálvez, a security expert and academic at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told Diálogo on September 18. “Ecuador is a key area for drug trafficking and, above all, a confrontation platform between these transnational criminal groups, which has led the government to establish a series of measures, including a state of emergency in several provinces of the country, to combat violence and crime.”
According to Infobae, the presence of hitmen, kidnappers, extortionists, and thousands of thieves and robbers is felt in working class neighborhoods as well as in relatively well-to-do areas. The insecurity and wave of violence revolve around cocaine.
Between January 1 and July 2, 2023, 3,568 violent deaths were recorded, equivalent to a rate of 19.83 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. If this trend persists, by the end of the year figures could exceed 7,000 murders, reaching a rate of 39 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, data gathering platform Statista indicated.
Democracy under threat
Despite having a security team, Ecuadorian candidate Fernando Villavicencio, who stood out for his firm stance against organized crime and corruption, was shot dead on August 9, days before the special presidential elections of August 20, Infobae reported.
According to the LA Times, in the days leading up to the assassination, the candidate made public allegations that the leader of a local criminal group, known as Los Choneros, linked to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, had threatened him. In addition, the candidate pointed to the existence of ties between politicians and drug traffickers.
“We are no longer dealing with common crime, but with the largest drug cartels in the world,” Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso told Ecuadorian daily Primicias. From May 2021 to August 2023, the Ecuadorian National Police seized 502 tons of drugs, the LA Times reported on September 5.
Cooperation and Intelligence
“International cooperation is an essential element to dismantle transnational crime,” Gálvez said. “This international collaboration involves information exchange, intelligence cooperation, strengthening of operational capabilities, and experience sharing.”
On August 16, Ecuador ratified a cooperation agreement with the United States, Spanish daily El Mundo reported. The agreement includes shared U.S. intelligence and advice to strengthen the capacity of the Ecuadorian Air Force in locating, identifying, tracking, and intercepting civilian aircraft suspected of drug trafficking.
“The United States recognizes that it is not enough to disrupt and attack criminal organizations, but also to strengthen the rule of law and the fight against corruption and money laundering throughout the region,” Gálvez said. “It is urgent to support the training and equipping of law enforcement authorities and to strengthen Ecuador’s operational capabilities against all criminal organizations.”
During the ratification of the agreement, U.S. Ambassador to Quito Michael J. Fitzpatrick said, “Now more than ever, the United States is committed to Ecuador in the fight against organized crime and the pursuit of justice. We are dedicated to our partnership with Ecuador in the areas of security, justice, and rule of law for as long as it takes to mitigate the urgent threats facing our countries and citizens.”
“Since 2018, the U.S. government has allocated approximately $31 million in bilateral assistance to Ecuador, specifically in areas related to the fight against drug trafficking and transnational organized crime to strengthen its capabilities,” Gálvez added.
“One lesson Ecuador can learn from Mexico and Colombia is that the rise of transnational organized crime leads to a mix of legal and illegal economic activities due to the increased financial capacity of criminal organizations,” Gálvez concluded. “This goes beyond money laundering and translates into their ability to diversify into other economic areas — an extremely worrying situation.”