Ecuador is currently facing a delicate political and social situation, undergoing a transition from its historically peaceful status among South American nations to one involved in a terrible power struggle of social order over drug trafficking and poverty-related challenges.
Recent years have seen a frightening surge in violence and organized crime, with the murder rate spiking to 46 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2023, significantly impacting the nation's security.
The Political Context
The last two decades have been characterized by ongoing political instability, ultimately leading to the current crisis. There have been 7 different presidents between 1997 and 2007.
Rafael Correa took charge in 2010, leading for a decade. But in 2017, when Lenin Moreno became president, things suddenly turned. His presidency was marked by controversial moves, including forgiving debts for big businesses, raising fuel prices, and removing the Ministry of Justice.
Moreno cut the prison budget, making problems worse. In 2021, when Guillermo Lasso became president, security issues escalated, leading to an alarming 80% increase in homicides between 2021 and 2022.
In a pivotal move in May 2023, Lasso invoked the "Muerte Cruzada," a constitutional mechanism dissolving the Congress and triggering presidential and legislative elections. This gave him the power to rule by decree for another six months.
This choice was a turning point in the Ecuadorian crisis, paving the way for a presidential campaign tainted by violence. The situation took a tragic turn with the assassination of candidate Fernando Villavicencio just days before the first round of elections in August 2023.
After all these events, Daniel Noboa became the president in October 2023, stepping into the role amidst a complex social landscape with a mere 12 months of effective governance ahead.
Additional Underlying Causes
Violence in Prisons
The increase in violence, especially since 2019, led to the first state of emergency in the prison system. Officials claim that prisons have turned into strongholds controlled by organized crime.
In the last four years, the country has witnessed unprecedented levels of violence and death in its prisons, impacting various neighborhoods across multiple cities. These incidents arise from the ongoing power struggle among criminal groups engaged in drug trafficking.
In its 2022 report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) emphasized a systemic crisis, pointing out that the prison population reached 36,599 people, well beyond the actual capacity of 30,169.
The rise in drug trafficking and organized crime in Ecuador is closely linked to how the country has used the U.S. dollar as its main currency since 2000. This choice still affects Ecuador's economy and plays a part in its social issues.
From 2000 to 2014, the rise in oil prices fueled a growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, in recent years, this economic upswing has hit a plateau.
Switching to the U.S. dollar changed how money works in Ecuador. Farmers who used to sell things abroad had a tough time, and now big banks and corporations have enormous power.
The tough economic conditions have made it difficult for families to make ends meet. A family of four would need around $800 to cover basic monthly food costs, but the working class only gets half of that amount. Adding to this, rules from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have decreased public investment. These various economic factors have led to increased poverty and fewer opportunities for people, making life in Ecuador economically challenging.
Drug trafficking is the major force behind the rising destabilization in the country, impacting not only the general population but also institutions, the financial system, and the state itself.
Ecuador's crowded and underfunded prisons have become places where inmate gangs team up with international drug cartels, establishing Ecuador's presence on the global drug trafficking scene.
Even though Ecuador deals with challenges like poverty, a fragile law enforcement system, and common corruption issues seen in many Latin American countries, it still maintains a thriving foreign trade sector. Unfortunately, this also makes it an appealing hub for drug trafficking activities.
In 2023, a United Nations report showed that cocaine shipments from Ecuador to Western Europe went up significantly, jumping from 14% in 2018 to 29% in 2020.
The security crisis hits young people hard, as criminal groups try to get them involved. A study on drug laws found that 40% of people in Ecuador's prisons are between 18 and 29 years old.
On January 9, 2024, a criminal group disrupted the live evening news broadcast of an Ecuadorian television channel, bringing attention to the country's ongoing crisis of violence and insecurity. This was an unprecedented event that caught the attention of the international community.
In a span of 24 hours, a series of 30 violent incidents unfolded, including police abductions, prison riots, and vehicle explosions, happening across different locations.
In response to this crisis, President Noboa declared the nation in a state of "internal armed conflict." He identified at least 22 transnational organized crime groups as "terrorist organizations and non-state belligerent actors."
Through a decree, Noboa provided a legal basis for the Armed Forces, in collaboration with the police, to use all available resources to neutralize these threats.
Responding decisively to the escape of Adolfo Macías, leader of a local criminal gang linked to the Drug Cartels, President Daniel Noboa declared a state of emergency and imposed a nighttime curfew.
The state of emergency, expected to last until early March, includes a six-hour curfew from 11 pm to 5 am, with security forces patrolling the cities during these hours.
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In a significant development, Ecuadorian military and police forces successfully regained control of several prisons on Sunday, January 14, after the release of over 100 officials and prison guards who had been taken hostage.
Over the past six days, security forces conducted a total of 12,974 operations nationwide to address the complex security challenges facing the country.
The United States and neighboring countries have strongly condemned the recent violence in Ecuador, labeling the acts as "atrocious." A statement from the U.S. Department of State emphasized a commitment to support the fight against criminal organizations in a South American nation. In the coming days, a delegation of high-ranking U.S. officials is scheduled to visit.
Ecuador is facing a pivotal crossroads shrouded in uncertainty where the echoes of violence, political unrest, and the looming threat of drug trafficking cast a heavy shadow.
Story is developing.