How Did Ecuador Spiral into This Nightmare? It Was the Neoliberal Dismantling of the State

January 25, 2024


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Ecuador has become a grim fixture in international headlines as it grapples with the deadly violence that has surged rapidly over the past few years. Until last year, media coverage mostly centered on Ecuador’s frequent prison riots and massacres, which have claimed over 400 deaths since 2021. But as the violence spread beyond the penitentiary system, the focus shifted to gang shootings and executions. In April 2023, video footage of a dock massacre, showing a speed boat full of armed men gunning down people running or swimming for their lives, went viral. Then, in August, the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio shocked the world. It was followed by the news that seven hitmen arrested for his assassination had been murdered in custody. Ecuador had spiraled out of control.

But last week, Ecuador again made global headlines when drug gangs went on a 24 hour-long violent rampage that culminated in a live, on-air hostage-taking on a TV news set. This unprecedented attack prompted newly inaugurated President Daniel Noboa to decree that the country faced an “internal armed conflict” — constitutional parlance for a declaration of war that essentially allows the military to take over from the police.

Ecuador wasn’t always this cliché of a narco-state. On the contrary, for years, Ecuador was hailed as an “island of peace”, even as a security success story. So how did it spiral into this chaos so rapidly?

Rewind to 2007. Rafael Correa is inaugurated president, and Ecuador’s murder rate is 15.9 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. When Correa leaves office 10 years later, the homicide rate has fallen to 5.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the lowest in Latin America.

Several policies explain this success. There was, undoubtedly, a traditional law-and-order approach. Under Correa, the police force grew by 40 percent. It was also purged, especially as a result of the September 30, 2010 police mutiny that resulted in Correa being held hostage for a day. And there were important wage hikes, with the salary of rank-and-file police personnel tripling during Correa’s term in office. His government also invested in training and equipped the force with the basic equipment it often so patently lacked.

The policing doctrine, moreover, changed substantially, with the government prioritizing decentralization and a more small-scale, neighborhood-based approach. Research suggests that the drive to implement a proximity police played a big role in reducing Ecuador’s crime rates.

This doctrinal transformation was accompanied by institutional change, notably with the creation of a Coordinating Security Ministry that oversaw policy and enforced collaboration between different institutions of the state security apparatus — the different branches of the military, the police, and the intelligence services which typically engage in cumbersome rivalries, and not just in Ecuador. The state also invested in a widely celebrated 911 emergency response system, which boasted unprecedented video surveillance and, by 2015, call centers in 17 locations across the country. The state was, in short, making itself present on its territory, an exercise in Weberian sovereignty unlike anything that had come before.

But the Correa administration did not just carry a big security stick, it also implemented social policies that would prove crucial for crime reduction. For example, the government strove to rehabilitate and reintegrate members of Ecuador’s urban gangs. The government approached the Latin Kings and Queens, Ñetas, and Masters of the Street to convince them to ditch crime in favor of the government’s social and educational schemes.

While violent, these gangs were not inserted into the structures of the Mexican cartels. Unlike with the Choneros, Lobos, Tiguerones and Lagartos today, amongst other gangs, there was still time to stop the problem from festering. Research from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) was congratulatory and even recommended that this “social inclusion approach to street gangs should be continued and highlighted as a model of best practices of the state.”

In the same vein, the Correa government introduced decriminalization of the possession of small quantities of drugs, part and parcel of a more general drive to treat drug consumption as a public health — rather than a policing — issue. This was also aimed at preventing the prison system from becoming overcrowded with small-time consumers, and at allowing the police to focus on organized crime. Again, the IDB found that “efforts to reach higher levels of social control based on policies of social inclusion and innovations in criminal justice and police reform” had proven successful.

In the context of today’s security collapse, the politicians and media pundits of the anti-correísta establishment frequently denounce these “soft-on-crime” policies as being at the root of Ecuador’s narco problem. It is little surprise then that Ecuador’s new president Daniel Noboa (2023-) recently decreed an end to the policy of decriminalizing the possession of small quantities of drugs.

The “soft-on-crime” narrative also feeds into a larger framing, in much of the mainstream Ecuadorian media today, that if Ecuador was peaceful under Correa, it was essentially because his government had a pact with the narcos. The argument is contrived. In the event of such a deal, one might expect the narcos to reap important benefits, to traffic more drugs for example. Yet even the US Drug Enforcement Agency celebrated in 2016 “the excellent results obtained by the anti-narcotics police in Ecuador”. Experts also concur that the volume of drugs being exported from Ecuador today is unprecedented, something which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has confirmed in several reports.

There is no doubt that, beyond the successes of specific crime reduction policies, Ecuador’s improved social conditions during the Correa decade helped enormously. Between 2007 and 2017, the Correa government doubled social spending. By 2016, poverty had been reduced by 41.6 percent. Inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, had fallen by 16.7 percent. Ecuador was making the kind of social progress that drug cartels find harder to thrive in.

So, how did this all unravel? Well, in 2017, Lenín Moreno became president, and despite having been elected on a political platform that promised continuity, his government (2017–2021) orchestrated a dramatic political U-turn and undid most of his predecessor’s policies. Under the supervision of the IMF — which extended Ecuador a credit line in 2019, conditioned on what its then managing director Christine Lagarde called a “reform program aimed at modernizing the economy and paving the way for strong, sustained, and equitable growth” — the state was rolled back, budgets were cut, there were thousands of layoffs.

The security sector was not spared. The prison system, where much of the violence had originated, saw its budget slashed by 30 percent under Moreno. Austerity also meant the Moreno government closed several ministries, including the Coordinating Ministry of Security, which oversaw public policy, and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, responsible among other things for administering the prison system; not even the school charged with training prison guards was spared. The Ministry of the Interior, in charge of the police, was merged with another ministry mostly responsible for the executive’s relations with other branches of government. The country’s intelligence agency was shut down and its activities were handed over to a new outfit comprised of retired military officers.

The results of the Moreno government were catastrophic, and particularly disastrous in social terms. By 2019, even before the pandemic hit Ecuador, poverty had increased by almost 17 percent.

The pandemic had a dire impact on Latin America. Unemployment and informal work grew sharply, as did crime and drug trafficking. Research has shown that criminal organizations used the COVID-19 shutdowns to consolidate their control over territory and ties with impoverished sectors of the population. Far from being the exception, Ecuador was one of the countries hardest hit by the post-pandemic rise in crime.

There was an added external challenge. After the 2016 Colombian peace process, drug traffickers started to privilege Colombia’s southern border and access to Ecuador’s Pacific ports. Today Ecuador, through the port of Guayaquil in particular, is a key transit point for drugs en route to the United States, Europe, Russia and even the Middle East. The scale of recent drug busts, including in Europe, is unlike anything witnessed before.

There is of course no counterfactual, and we can only speculate as to how other governments would have dealt with this exogenous variable. But we do know that instead of stumbling upon a state boasting functioning infrastructure and institutions, the cartels came across a vacuum that they were swift to fill.

Tragically for Ecuador, the government of Guillermo Lasso (2021–2023) continued the policies of his predecessor. Conveniently for crime syndicates, the Lasso government was weak — his party holding less than 10 percent of seats in parliament — and marred by corruption. Allegations eventually surfaced that Danilo Carrera, Lasso’s brother-in-law and closest business collaborator, was at the center of a complex web of corruption, and allegedly had links with the “Albanian Mafia” drug ring. Soon after, the key witness in this investigation, Carrera’s right-hand man and fixer, was found murdered. The Lasso administration started falling apart.

In May 2023, a few days before his likely impeachment by the National Assembly on corruption charges, Lasso finally dissolved the assembly and called for new elections. He would go on to govern as a lame-duck president, with record low approval ratings, until November 2023, when Daniel Noboa was inaugurated.

Violence, meanwhile, soared. Prison massacres became commonplace. By 2021, homicide rates had risen to 14 per 100,000. In 2022, they reached 25.9, and in 2023, climbed to an astonishing 45 per 100,000 — an eight-fold increase since 2017, Correa’s last year in office.

The United States, meanwhile, cheered on. “President Trump” — the White House announced — “applauded President Moreno’s stewardship of Ecuador to achieve a peaceful and democratic transition away from ‘21st century socialism,’ to a democratic society focused on the defense of basic rights and a free market economy.”

President Biden was similarly supportive of Lasso, with whom he claimed to be “united not only in our values but in our vision of the future, one that’s both free and democratic.” Frequent letters from members of the US Congress warning the Biden administration to pay attention to Lasso’s corruption and calling for a DOJ investigation into his hidden assets in the United States went unheeded.

If Daniel Noboa is able to showcase even modest improvements in Ecuador’s security situation – the utter failure of his predecessors has set the bar low, he may be in for a chance at reelection in 2025. Noboa was elected last October to head a transitional administration charged with finishing his predecessor’s presidential mandate after Lasso cut his own presidency short when he chose to dissolve the National Assembly. With elections in early 2025, and having now made clear he wishes to run, Noboa has little time to convince Ecuadorians that he is the man to defeat the cartels.

Noboa’s “war” nevertheless promises to be costly. His administration is fortunate that it enjoys relatively high crude oil prices, Ecuador’s number one export, but the president is still desperately looking for quick sources of liquidity to fund his offensive against criminal organizations. He has, for example, just proposed a bill to raise VAT from 12 to 15 percent.

The present situation also makes the Noboa government highly dependent on the United States. Bilateral security cooperation has been steadily on the rise in the last five years and reached new highs under Lasso. In October 2023, an agreement even opened the door for a US military presence in Ecuador, which grants full immunity to US personnel. The Ecuadorian Constitutional Court has just ruled that the agreement does not require legislative authorization because it is not a “military alliance”, merely a case of security “cooperation”, despite the agreement’s many renunciations of some of the most basic tenets of state sovereignty. Three of the court’s nine judges dissented and called for a parliamentary decision, to no avail.

For Washington, the War on Drugs has been, since the end of the Cold War, repeatedly exploited to ascertain renewed US presence in the Western Hemisphere and maintain influence over the security apparatus of Latin American states. Ecuador confirms this trend.

Another state which is fast becoming one of Ecuador’s closest security partners is Israel. Ecuador is the latest of a number of states in the Global South that Israel has been able to coax through security cooperation. Unsurprisingly, Noboa has expressed strong support for Israel in the current crisis. “We’re not going to condemn Israel’s actions [in Gaza] nor are we going to take the position Brazil and Colombia did”, he recently said.

Sovereignty, strategic autonomy, and Ecuador’s tradition of multilateralism and respect for international law have therefore already been sacrificed in this conflict.

Ultimately, the biggest sacrifice will be the pain and suffering such a “war” is likely to inflict on people, especially as politicians attempt to assuage public anger through repressive measures, reactionary policies, and the politics of discrimination and prejudice. The risk, as is so often the case, is that this crackdown becomes a war on the impoverished youths of the urban periphery.

In the name of austerity and to defeat “socialism,” Ecuador has now become the new frontline of the failed US War on Drugs. It may take years or even decades for Ecuador to rebuild a functioning state and social contract that ensures peace and security to its people.

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