Violence has erupted across Ecuador this week. At least 13 people have been killed, shops, schools and government offices are closed, and soldiers are patrolling the streets in several cities across the country.
President Daniel Noboa has declared a state of emergency, ordered a nationwide curfew and said that Ecuador was in a “state of internal armed conflict”.
What’s behind this sudden outbreak of violence?
- ‘Fito’, the convicted head of the Los Choneros gang, escaped from prison in the country’s largest city, Guayaquil, on Sunday. Since then, there have been reports of bomb explosions, gunfire, and looting across the country.
- Then, on Tuesday, armed gang members stormed the TC Televisión studio, taking newsreaders and production staff hostage. The attack was captured live on air, and one gunman was overheard saying “don’t mess with the mafias.” (🇪🇨)
- At least 28 prison guards have been taken hostage since Sunday, including one who was forced at gunpoint to read out a statement saying, “You [President Noboa] declared a state of emergency. We declare police, civilians and soldiers to be the spoils of war.“
Violence on this scale is a relatively new phenomenon in Ecuador. In Guayaquil – which is Ecuador’s principal port and therefore, a drug trafficking hub – murders were up ~80% last year.
Corruption is also rife among Ecuador’s police and prison system – analysts estimate that criminal gangs run one-quarter of the country’s prisons.
In fact, the probable trigger for Fito’s jailbreak and the subsequent gang violence was President Noboa’s recent decision to move notorious inmates like Fito from their cells, where they have been orchestrating crimes, to a more secure prison.
The region is watching closely
- 🇵🇪 Peru declared an emergency along its border with Ecuador and moved troops and police to reinforce it. It’s worried that gang members might flee across the border from Ecuador.
- 🇨🇴 Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro expressed solidarity with Ecuador, saying his country would help however it could. Colombia is no stranger to drug cartel-related crime.
- 🇺🇸 US: The US said it supports President Noboa’s efforts to tackle organised crime. Ecuadorians have been migrating to the US in record numbers recently – the US does not want a prolonged emergency situation that forces more Ecuadorians to head north.
At its core, this is a story about violent drug gangs fighting over large cocaine flows from the Americas to the insatiable markets of the US and Europe. President Noboa was elected in large part because he promised to use the military to end drug trafficking-related violence. But that approach isn’t a slam dunk.
In Mexico, a military crackdown created many smaller gangs, which has arguably worsened violence. A crackdown in El Salvador saw murder rates fall 70% last year, but human rights groups say the government has arbitrarily detained citizens, and tortured and killed prisoners.
Given this week’s events, Ecuadorians understandably remain in favour of Noboa’s approach, so he’ll get considerable freedom to respond forcefully during this “60-day state of emergency.”
Also worth noting:
- 11 days before last year’s presidential election, one of the candidates Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated. He had expressed a fear of the Los Choneros gang shortly before his death.