Ecuador tumbles into chaos as narco gangs fight to control drug routes

There can be no human rights without the rule of law. When a country descends into narco-violence, human rights are gone.

Ecuador dominated international headlines on January 9, when 13 heavily armed gunmen stormed the studios of TC Television, a public TV channel in Guayaquil, the country’s largest city, during a live newscast. Several shots were fired, although no one was killed in the station.

The violence began earlier in the week with a series of prison riots, which resulted in the escape of two notorious drug lords: José Adolfo Macías Salazar, alias “Fito,” of the group Los Choneros, and Fabricio Colón Pico, alias “Capitan Pico,” from Los Lobos. Apart from the attack on the television station, there were also car bombs, kidnappings, as well as an attack on a university in Guayaquil that resulted in hostage taking.

In response, President Guillermo Lasso has deployed the military to aid the police in a massive crackdown on gangs, which he dubbed an "internal armed conflict." Over the past several days, more than ten people were killed in numerous attacks by drug gangs, prompting the president to declare a state of emergency that will last for at least 60 days. Shortly after the announcement, at least 125 prison guards and 14 administrative staff members were taken hostage in five prisons across the nation.

This marked the second major attack on the news station in the past year. In March of last year, several Ecuadorian media outlets, including TC Television, received letter bombs disguised as USB drives. One presenter, Lenin Artieda, was injured when he opened the package and plugged the drive into his computer. Investigations revealed that the explosive devices contained "military-type" explosives. This incident, attributed to drug trafficking gangs, raised concerns about the increasing threats and intimidation faced by Ecuadorian journalists.

Simultaneously, innocent civilians are losing their lives. In the previous year alone, 8,000 people were murdered, and the country’s murder rate has quadrupled over the past five years.

President Noboa appears to have taken recent events to heart and has vowed to make permanent changes in the country. “The time is over when drug trafficking convicts, hitmen, and organized crime dictate to the government what to do,” Noboa said in a video released on January 8. The 36-year-old Noboa, elected after the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio in August, has promised to combat the drug gangs. Until recently, although Ecuador was not as safe as the United States or Western Europe, it was still safer than most of the nations along the narco trail from the Andes to the US Southern border.

In narcotrafficking studies, countries are typically classified as source countries, transit countries, and user countries. For cocaine, the US is considered the user country. Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia are considered source countries, while El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, all of which have notoriously high crime rates, are regarded as crucial transit countries.

While Ecuador is not directly on the transit route to the US, it is still surrounded by source countries, and its extensive coastline and porous borders with Colombia and Peru make it attractive for drug traffickers. Criminal organizations, including Colombian cartels and local Ecuadorian gangs, exploit these vulnerabilities to transport cocaine by land, air, and sea.

On the domestic front, a portion of the cocaine that transits through the country remains within Ecuador. Consequently, cocaine use, particularly among young people, is a growing concern. Other drugs like marijuana and synthetic narcotics are also consumed domestically, although to a lesser extent compared to cocaine. The increase in drug use is driven by factors such as poverty, lack of opportunity, and gang influence.

Ecuador has some small-scale cocaine production in remote areas. Money laundering is also common because of Ecuador’s dollarized economy. Additionally, where there are drugs and illegal money, there is violence. Drug trafficking fuels gang violence and turf wars, leading to increased crime rates and insecurity for citizens.

Ecuador, with a Corruption Perception Index score of 36/100 (where 100 is deemed completely clean), holds the 101st position out of 180 countries, according to Transparency International. In terms of human freedom, Ecuador has a score of 7.03. This is better than traditional transit countries, such as Nicaragua, where the corruption perception index is 19/100, and the country ranks 167/180, giving Nicaragua a human freedom index of 5.4.

For perspective, the United States boasts a corruption score of 69/100, securing the 24th spot out of 180 nations. The correlation between human freedoms and corruption is evident, with the US achieving a higher human freedom score of 8.39. This places the US on par with the democracies of Western Europe, Canada, and Australia. 


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Ecuador’s homicide rate has skyrocketed in the last few years. In 2019, it was 6.7 per 100,000, on par with the US. Now, it is 45 per 100,000, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

Ecuador has been grappling with a surge in violence, particularly in Guayaquil, as drug gangs fight for territorial control. A prison crisis is partly to blame for the violence, as Ecuador's prisons have created fertile ground for gang activity and power struggles. Political and economic instability also play a role, as Ecuador's recent political and economic turmoil has weakened the government's ability to combat crime effectively.

The general climate of insecurity has a devastating impact on ordinary Ecuadorians, who live in fear for their safety. The crackdown on gangs is now creating other problems. A nationwide curfew has been imposed from 11 pm to 5 am. Schools have been closed, and the Ministry of Labor has recommended telework wherever possible. Currently, armored vehicles, as well as police and military with heavy weapons, are on the streets, and residents are trying their best to remain indoors. President Noboa has called the narco-traffickers terrorists and suspended the usual due process and civil liberties in apprehending them. This raises questions about the preservation of the rights of the innocent and when exactly the country will return to normal, and what that normal will look like.

The Ecuador situation presents a particular challenge for the United States. During Rafael Correa's presidency from 2007 to 2017, he took actions that strained relations with the US. In 2009, Correa ordered the withdrawal of US troops, refusing to renew the lease for a Forward Operating Location (FOL) in Manta, which the US had used for counternarcotics surveillance flights. Consequently, the US is somewhat hamstrung in terms of helping to suppress the violence or stop the flow of drugs.

Conditions of insecurity, including violence, lawlessness, and general desperation, drive illegal immigration to the US. According to US border protection reports, encounters with individuals from Ecuador have increased from 15,000 in 2019 to 104,000 in 2023. 

Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA MBA, is a China economic analyst teaching economics at the American University in Mongolia. He has spent 20 years in Asia and is the author of six books about China. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Penthouse, Shanghai Institute of American Studies, Epoch Times, War on the Rocks, Just the News, and Black Belt Magazine.

Image: Ecuadorian drug lord José Adolfo Macías Salazar, alias “Fito”, under arrest. Later on he escaped. 


Showing 6 reactions

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  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-01-23 11:59:07 +1100
    James Dougall

    Let’s get something straight. Marijuana fries your brain. Usage should be discouraged and the sale of marijuana should be strictly controlled. Probably dispensed on prescription for people who have an addiction. Make it free on prescription which wrecks the drug traffickers business model.

    I have never argued that marijuana or any of the other prohibited substances are harmless.

    My point is simply that prohibition, criminalising possession and usage, is a case of the cure being worse than the disease. A criminal record, going to jail, pretty well wrecks your life.

    And I have to ask, yet again, we do many things that we do, that are harmful, How far do you want to go in criminalising them.

    BTW: For a long time it looked as if obesity caused lower IQ. We now know that causality works the other way. People with lower IQ are more likely to get fat.

    I suspect the same may apply, at least to some extent, to studies about marijuana and IQ. Which way does causality flow?

    In both cases there may be confounding factors such as stressful environments.
  • James Dougall
    Just one article from the Mercator files, arguing the case against legalising even the least harmful of recreational drugs:
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-01-14 23:32:37 +1100
    James Dougall, lots of things cause harm. Alcohol causes harm. Obesity causes harm. Eating ultra-processed food causes harm.

    Compared to the harm caused by feeding kids sugary breakfast cereals, the harm from taking occasional party drugs like ecstasy is trivial.

    How far do you want to carry legislating to prevent people harming themselves?

    Why not prohibit alcohol which causes much more harm than ecstasy?

    Oh, wait…

    Meanwhile entire countries are being destabilised by eg the cocaine industry and cocaine remains freely available.

    The “war on drugs” is a clear case of the “cure” being worse, much worse, than the disease.
  • James Dougall
    “So long as the stupid drug prohibition laws remain in force innocent bystanders will pay the price.” This sort of libertarianism is naive. Drug consumption causes the harm in the first place.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-01-12 23:10:26 +1100
    So long as the stupid drug prohibition laws remain in force innocent bystanders will pay the price.
  • Michael Cook
    published this page in The Latest 2024-01-12 10:57:53 +1100