Ecuador’s Security Woes Amid a Sudden Election

by September 2023
Ecuadorian presidential candidates Luisa Gonzalez and Daniel Noboa. Photos credit: REUTERS/Karen Toro

Formerly peaceful Ecuador has been rocked by violence during its current presidential elections. In August, Fernando Villavicencio, a presidential candidate and vocal critic of corruption, was assassinated as he left a campaign rally in the country’s capital, Quito. Several local politicians have also been murdered during the campaign period. 

The first round of August 20 resulted in two top candidates, whose run-off on October 15 will enact a political re-play: Luisa Gonzalez, the candidate representing the party of left-wing president Rafael Correa (2007-2017), is polling close to Daniel Noboa, a businessman and heir to a banana empire fortune, whose father lost to Correa in 2006. 

During a visit to the country in August, I heard from a wide range of Ecuadorians that the top issue in the elections is security. Whoever wins will need to reform the law enforcement sector and rally the population to reverse alarming rates of murder, extortion, and drug trafficking amidst an unchecked security crisis.

A Background of Political Upheaval in an Insecure Landscape

In May, facing a possible impeachment, President Guillermo Lasso invoked a constitutional provision that dissolves the legislature, and allows the president to rule by decree, as long as both the presidency and legislature are up for election within four months. Lasso is not running for re-election. The constitutional proviso states that there will be yet another set of elections when his term would have normally ended in 2025.

Until 2016, Ecuador was a relatively peaceful country in a volatile region, with low rates of murder and other drug-related crime, partially explained by the chokehold of the Colombian guerilla group, the FARC, on the transit trade of cocaine. With the advent of the Colombian peace agreement in 2016 and breakup of the FARC’s drug-trading monopoly, gangs from Mexico and the Balkans moved into Ecuador’s territory just as a surge in cocaine production in Colombia and demand in Europe increased its market value. Now, a free-for-all has brought terror, especially to Ecuador’s major port city, Guayaquil, and the ‘cocaine corridor’ leading from Peru and Bolivia up to Colombia. The murder rate went up seven-fold in Guayaquil from 2015 to 2022.

While Correa is associated with a peaceful period that Ecuadorians miss, and his party’s candidate may benefit from this association, Mr. Correa bears some of the blame for today’s situation. He threw out or eliminated most of the US-sponsored counter-narcotics infrastructure, including a special investigations police unit and a military base that helped monitor Ecuador’s airspace and the Pacific Ocean transit zone from Peru to Colombia. While that base did not carry out direct law enforcement, it was widely seen as having a deterrent impact on the “cocaine corridor” from Peru and Bolivia north to Colombia. Meanwhile, Correa’s efforts to curb police abuses led to policies which hamstring police effectiveness. Enforcement of harsher sentence guidelines doubled the prison population, particularly of non-violent drug offenders, which created a breeding ground for violent gangs. 

Correa’s successors also made security blunders, for example eliminating the justice ministry, underfunding police and prisons, and in Lasso’s case repeatedly declaring states of emergency which served to compel the military, ineffectively, to handle policing issues. Prisons have spiraled out of control, with various gangs fighting for dominance, and little effective attention by the government to measures of control until a series of grisly massacres in 2021-2022. 

President Lasso did not prioritize security at first and later made ineffective gestures, such as legalizing individual possession of firearms for self-defense and designating certain criminal organizations as terrorists. He appealed for US help to manage the crisis. But quick political measures and external assistance were no match for systemic problems.

Ecuadorians attend the voting centers during the presidential elections, August 20, 2023. Photo credit: ULAN/Pool / Latin America News Agency via Reuters Connect
Ecuadorians vote during the first round of presidential elections, August 20, 2023. Photo credit: ULAN/Pool / Latin America News Agency via Reuters Connect

A Fatally Weak Security Sector has Regional Implications

During my recent visit, I heard from several experts that “Ecuador’s problems are stronger than its institutions.” Decades of watching neighboring states, particularly Colombia, grapple with high murder rates, rampant drug  trafficking, and violent insurgencies, while Ecuador remained relatively peaceful, did not spur Ecuador’s leaders to take steps to harden its police, courts, prisons, and international alliances against transnational crime and its impact. Then external shocks, like Colombia’s peace agreement and worldwide appetites for cocaine, have been met with a hollowed-out security sector. 

One important aspect of the problem is the politicization of law enforcement. Incoming presidents routinely replace civil servants in key security ministries down to relatively junior levels, disrupting law enforcement effectiveness. A senior official told me that he had to actively work to retain the bench of trained and experienced civil servants already in place. This is even more troubling given the fact that yet another presidential transition is likely to occur in 2025, after the current one.  

Ecuador’s vulnerability has a regional impact. Colombia is working hard to keep its deal with the FARC and to include the last major insurgent group, the ELN, in a new round of talks. Peru has been battling political instability, and the entire region is grappling with the ongoing problem of absorbing millions of Venezuelan refugees who started leaving in 2015. (The number of Venezuelans currently granted asylum in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia over the past seven years is 4,500,000 – the proportional equivalent of the United States taking in 14 million new asylees.) In addition, a criminal safe haven in this region threatens other environmental interests:  the Amazon basin is being plundered for its natural resources, providing a lawless area for illegal gold mining and trafficking in rare species. 

Ecuador Needs a Plan

The outcome of this October’s election is still in play. Noboa is a politically inexperienced businessman, with views along the lines of the failed current president, Lasso. But many Ecuadorians are unwilling to risk an overt return to “Correismo” and may unite around him. Whoever wins will face pressure to cut deals to fix criminal corruption cases facing Ecuadorian leaders, particularly Correa himself.

InSight Crime, an investigative non-governmental organization which tracks transnational crime throughout Latin America, notes that “whether González or Noboa emerge victorious, Ecuador’s police, army, and prison system must confront shortages in resources and training as well as corruption if they are to change.” 

Both candidates have security plans that avoid some of the draconian, human-rights-optional approaches taken by others in the region to fight street gangs. Both promise to deal with police and prison weaknesses, although Correa’s party has traditionally circumscribed police powers (and has been blamed for making police too fearful of lawsuits to carry out their duties.) 

Whoever wins will need to professionalize the police, courts, and prison structures so that they are worthy of the trust of Ecuador’s citizens. Ecuador must also bolster its networks of allies and partners, using its excellent relations with neighbors, the US, Canada and Europe. With two elections in two years as a measuring stick, Ecuador’s people should demand, and receive, politicians who prioritize the citizens’ safety. 

Annie Pforzheimer
Annie Pforzheimer, an Associate Editor of the Jerusalem Strategic Tribune, is a Senior Non-Resident Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. As a US diplomat, she served as the State Department Director for Andean Affairs from 2015 to 2017.
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