How Ecuador became one of the most violent countries in Latin America
QUITO — Only a few years ago, Ecuador was an island of peace wedged between Colombia and Peru, the world’s largest cocaine producers.
But since 2018, drug seizures and homicides have increased alarmingly, blamed widely on transnational organized crime groups.
The assassination Wednesday of centrist candidate Fernando Villavicencio — up to then second in polls ahead of the August 20 presidential election — has shaken the country to its core.
Six Colombians have been arrested in connection with the shooting attack outside a campaign rally, and a seventh died in a gunbattle with security agents.
Drug-linked violence in Ecuador last year propelled the homicide rate to 26 per 100,000 inhabitants, nearly double the previous year’s level.
President Guillermo Lasso, who has been battling the drug gangs but been unable to stem the rising violence, has accused “organized crime” of killing Villavicencio, a former journalist who had denounced corruption and received death threats from the drug gang known as Los Choneros.
Interior Minister Juan Zapata has said there are more than 13 organized crime groups operating in Ecuador, the oldest and most powerful of which is Los Choneros, now allied with the Sinaloa cartel of Mexico.
But the country’s military intelligence says it has identified as many as 26 active narcotrafficking gangs, which are heavily armed and with numbers that experts said could perhaps rival Ecuador’s 60,000-strong police forces.
Analysts told AFP the wars on drugs in Mexico and Colombia have put pressure on the cartels in those countries — as well as Albanian mafias — prompting them to set up operations in Ecuador.
For the narcotraffickers, Ecuador’s ports on the Pacific provide useful points from which to export cocaine to Europe and the United States.
The gangs were attracted as well by the country’s porous borders, dollarized economy, widespread corruption and lack of money laundering controls, the experts said.
Jorge Restrepo, director of Colombia’s CERAC think tank, said the cartels can operate in Ecuador “at a lower production cost.”
“Ecuador has a policy of fighting organized crime that has not prevented government forces and judicial organizations from being infiltrated by drug-linked organized crime,” he told AFP.
Luis Cordova Alarcon, who heads a program on conflict and violence at the Central University of Ecuador, dates the beginning of “extreme criminal violence” to a deadly car bombing in January 2018.
The attack partly destroyed a police headquarters and wounded 23 people in a town on the border with Colombia.
It was blamed on a dissident of the Colombian guerrilla group FARC, who murdered three journalists working for Quito’s El Comercio newspaper and was killed that year by Colombian security guards.
The car bomb attack was followed by bloody prison massacres between rival drug gangs that left 430 inmates dead over the following three years.
Much like in Mexico, Ecuadorans began to see dismembered bodies left in the streets, corpses hanging from bridges, and kidnappings-for-ransom in which captors cut off their victims’ fingers or ears.
Among the victims of violence in Ecuador have been mayors, judges, prosecutors and dozens of innocent civilians.
Cocaine seizures, meantime, have steadily risen.
Experts say the growing number of seizures, and police crackdowns in the prisons from which many drug-gang leaders operate, have only made things worse.
“Ecuador is becoming increasingly violent because of the way the state intervenes through its security forces, capturing the ringleaders and increasing cocaine seizures,” said Cordova Alarcon.
The criminals grow more violent as they defend their business, as well as other illegal activities like illicit gold mining and arms trafficking, he said.
“Organized crime is already taking over the state,” he added.