Police, soldiers and gangs
Once relatively stable, Ecuador has quickly become a failed state, highlighting the criminal failure of the insane ‘war on drugs’, writes Eddie Ford
Once a country that generally went unnoticed, Ecuador is now all over the news. Last week, with the cameras still rolling, masked gunmen brandishing high-calibre rifles and grenades burst into the studio of the state-owned TC Televisión - trying to make the broadcasters denounce the government and the police, as shots were fired elsewhere in the building. A police task force retook the studio soon after, arresting 13 intruders and releasing the hostages.
In the past, you might have thought that they were part of a brave guerilla group who had seized the TV station in order to issue a call for revolution and urge the oppressed masses to arm themselves in preparation. But that was not the case, of course. Rather, highlighting the reactionary times we live in, they were a narco gang expressing their solidarity with the drugs lord and leader of the Los Choneros cartel, Adolfo ‘Fito’ Macías. Serving a 34-years sentence and incarcerated since 2011 - having previously escaped prison and lived for a while as a fugitive in 2013 - he managed to break free again on January 7 from the country’s largest prison. In response, the government of president Daniel Noboa declared a 60-day state of emergency that included nightly curfews; and in retaliation criminal gangs have launched numerous attacks against the police, prison officers and anybody who has incurred their displeasure - plunging the country into bloody chaos.
Over 158 prison guards and staff have been taken hostage by inmates in seven prisons, vehicles and buildings around the country have been set ablaze, and at least 15 people, including police officers, have been murdered. On the same day as the TV station was raided, government officials in Quito’s historic centre and other state institutions were evacuated for safety and many businesses were forced to close their commercial activities for the day. An explosive device was later found and deactivated and several hospitals were targeted by the gangs, stealing medical supplies - presumably to treat wounded comrades - and shooting up the medical facilities and other buildings in what they hope is an intimidating display of power.
Noboa, a US-educated scion of a banana empire - the same old Latin American story - took office in November, promising a tough law-and-order agenda, has stated that Ecuador is “at war” with drug-traffickers and signed a decree making them legitimate “military targets”. His role model appears to be El Salvador’s populist strongman, Nayib Bukele, who took office in June 2019, also promising a severe clampdown on the drugs gangs. This apparently resulted in a nearly 60% decrease in homicides in 2022, and by even more the following year, but the campaign has led to the country having the highest incarceration rate in the world for adults - quite a claim - and inevitably to the increasingly authoritarian nature of the government.1
Noboa’s government aims to hold a referendum that would allow for the extradition of citizens accused of crimes abroad and the seizure of suspects’ assets - something that requires approval from the country’s constitutional court before it can go ahead. Setting the grisly scene, the nation was traumatised in August when centre-right presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio - a former investigative journalist standing on an anti-corruption ticket - was assassinated by gunmen ahead of November’s snap election. Just before, Villavicencio had said he had been threatened by Los Choneros.
The upshot of all this is that Ecuador, having borders with Peru to the south and Colombia to the north, has turned from a relatively peaceful and stable country into one of the bloodiest in the region - becoming more or less a failed state in a remarkably quick period of time. This is evinced by the murder rate, which, according to the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, has increased ninefold since 2017. Of course, murders are typically concentrated in a particular demographic, so we are almost certainly talking about an appalling death toll among young men - either at the hands of rival drugs gangs or the police, or the other way round - with the army and police knocking out drugs gangs in a seemingly endless cycle of killing.
Showing how serious things are becoming, Peru too has a state of emergency on its border with Ecuador, where it has now deployed troops. Colombia, which shares a porous border with Ecuador, has expressed “concern” about the deteriorating situation in its neighbour.
It is not too difficult to work out the reasons for this explosion of violence. Ecuador was part of the ‘pink tide’ that saw a series of left-leaning governments elected in Latin America from the early 2000s - such as Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, along with Peru, Honduras and Chile. Colombia elected the first leftwing president in their history with Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M19 guerrilla movement, while Bernardo Arévalo secured a surprise victory in Guatemala. Under what passes for social democracy nowadays, living standards in Ecuador markedly improved.
But, almost inevitably, this was followed by a ‘conservative wave’ of rightwing government. At the same time the criminal gangs and drugs lords became increasingly powerful - basically playing the role of a state within a state, as the economy plunged. The consequence is the current situation, where you have a state of war between the government and the gangs. With Ecuador being the perfect example, at the epicentre of this bloodletting are the country’s grotesquely overcrowded prisons, which have fallen under the control of the gangs - often using them as bases for their operations and staging grounds for street battles. Over 400 inmates have been murdered in the last four years, while riots and jailbreaks are common (with massacres taking place within the complex where Fito was being held, for example).
Stating the obvious, Roberto Izurieta, a government spokesperson, said in a television interview that Ecuador’s penitentiary system had “completely failed” - especially seeing how the leader of the Los Lobos gang, Fabricio Colón, had also escaped jail in the same week. Izurieta added that Fito had been expected to be transferred to a maximum-security facility just hours before his disappearance, making it hard not to suspect an inside job. Indeed, the authorities said two prison officials had been charged for involvement in the escape. Unions representing prison workers (a hellish job!) have blasted the government for not providing information about their wellbeing, as videos circulate on social media of guards seemingly being tortured.
As for Fito himself, it goes without saying that he is a ruthless individual who appears only interested in accumulating power, wealth and influence. Along with Junior Roldán, he became co-leader of Los Choneros in 2020, following the murder of their predecessor, Jorge Luis Zambrano, who had been the supremo for quite some time - making the gang into what it is today. Strangely enough, Roldán was also murdered three years later, leaving Fito solely in charge of Los Choneros - causing a split within the organisation from those who remained loyal to the memory of Zambrano.
Like many a gang boss (or Mr Big) before him, Fito exercised what has been described as “significant internal control” of the prison where he was incarcerated - experiencing “differentiated and preferential treatment” by the authorities. In other words, in a classic ‘police and thieves’ situation - or soldiers and gangsters - the likes of Los Choneros have begun co-opting parts of the state, starting with its jails and then expanding outwards.
There are a number of specific factors behind the escalating crisis in Ecuador. One of these is the Covid-19 pandemic, making thousands of young people jobless and thus creating ideal recruits for the gangs.
Arguably an even more important reason behind the growing power of the gangs is the changing global demand for cocaine, with markets in Europe, Asia and Brazil growing, as consumption in the US appears to wane. Actually, it is a moot point as to whether the demand for cocaine in the US has gone down or not - as the statistics can be interpretated in many ways.2 It seems unlikely that opioids have taken the place of cocaine, as they are very different sorts of drugs, though it does seem the case that deaths from cocaine-related use have increased considerably in the US. Of course, that does not necessarily mean a proportionate increase in cocaine consumption (more that the cocaine now being sold in the US is laced with dangerous crap!).
Anyhow, whatever the exact reasons, with the agreement of Mexico’s immensely powerful Sinaloa and Nuevo Jalisco cartels, the Ecuadorean gangs have made themselves an integral part of the global narcotics supply chain, partly thanks to the country’s lightly policed shipping ports - perfect for diverting cocaine supplies to Europe. Meanwhile, cartels from as far afield as Albania have sought a piece of the Ecuadorian drug trade action and are financing local operations - creating the toxic conditions for a murderous surge in crime, as the gangs compete by any means necessary to secure the extraordinarily profitable trafficking routes. Naturally, being ambitious, they are using the huge profits from drugs trafficking to diversify into extortion, kidnapping, illegal mining, night clubs, the music business, and so on.
What is happening in Ecuador is another living and foul example of the criminal ‘war on drugs’ - an insane exercise, as it has only brought disaster whenever it has been tried - but governments keep on doing it anyway through a combination of venality, desperation and self-interest. Gangs in Ecuador now have 50,000 members or more for the simple reason that they have no future other than emigrating up north to Mexico and then over the border into the US. Either live in poverty, join a drugs gang or get out of the country.
Of course, the danger is that you go from the frying pan into the fire. If you are a young Colombian or Ecuadorian, what are you going to do in the US? Quite possibly get involved with criminal gangs or end up in a barbaric US prison, with your life still going nowhere. The only sane and humane way forward is the legalisation of all drugs, thus depriving the gangs of their profits and removing an easy excuse for the state to accrue more repressive powers.