MS Risk Blog

Ecuador’s Security Crisis

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On 9 May, a prison riot caused by clashes between rival gangs in the city of Santo Domingo left 43 inmates dead. According to Interior Minister Patricio Carrillo, 108 prisoners remain at large and 112 have been recaptured. Prison riots are a common occurrence in the country. In 2021, there were multiple incidences of prison rioting, resulting in 316 inmate deaths. The Santo Domingo incident is just the latest indication of Ecuador’s worsening security situation.

Violence in prisons is not Ecuador’s only security problem. Murder rates are climbing not just in the prison system but on the country’s streets as well. On 29 April, President Guillermo Lasso declared a 60-day state of emergency in 3 of Ecuador’s 24 provinces. Measures imposed include a curfew and the deployment of thousands of members of the Ecuadorian security forces to affected areas of Guayas, Manabí and Esmeraldas, with the stated purpose to “enforce peace and order.” President Lasso tweeted that “the streets will feel the weight” of their presence. It is the second time in just over 6 months that a state of emergency has been declared, with one brought into effect 18 October 2021, and extended into November.

The precise causes of the re-emergence of violence in the country are difficult to determine, after Ecuador had been seeing successes in reduction of crime previous to 2021. Since the legalization of gangs in the 2007, the country’s murder rate had decreased significantly. The Ecuadorian state and most media outlets argue that gangs are to blame, and suggest that Ecuador’s geographic location makes it vulnerable to gang violence, since the country sits between two large cocaine producers – Colombia and Peru. Location also goes some way to explaining the reason that certain cities and provinces see more violence than others. The city of Guayaquil has been badly affected. It is included in the areas currently covered by the state of emergency and on 14 February, it was reported that two bodies were found hanging from a pedestrian bridge in Durán, next to Guayaquil. As the largest port in the country, it offers a route of passage for drugs into Europe and North America. Ecuadorian police claim that killings such as those in Durán are linked to an ongoing rivalry between the Águilas, a faction of the sizeable Choneros gang, and the Chone Killers. It has also been reported that Mexican cartels such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel are contributing to the problem. It is suggested that these Mexican cartels have formed alliances with Ecuadorian gangs in an attempt to control the flow of drugs through Ecuador and its port cities.

Some are less convinced by the dominant narrative that blames Ecuadorian and Mexican gangs. Analysts have proposed alternative explanations. They suggest that economic hardship, including informal labour, is a principal cause. This hardship has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Ecuadorian government statistics, poverty had risen to 32.2% by 2021 compared with 25% in 2019. Analysts also argue that for years state institutions have been weakened under previous presidents, which makes combatting crime more difficult. Daniel Ponton, a security analyst and university professor, details how this has happened. Former president Rafael Correa’s government created a new intelligence service that analysts and political rivals accuse of spying on the opposition. Then, in 2018, Lenin Moreno (Correa’s successor) closed that intelligence service and created a new entity. Ponton explains that these changes produced a lack of state cohesion, and when there are too many changes, intelligence work cannot be properly coordinated.

There is little reason to expect improvement in Ecuador’s security crisis, whether the root cause is either economic hardship or gang activity. The country’s security forces appear ill-equipped to manage the gang violence issues, and Lasso’s strategy of attracting foreign investment to improve the country’s economy appears unlikely to work, since stability would be required to make Ecuador attractive as an investment destination.