News | Southern Cone - Andes Region Drugs and Austerity Are behind the Gang Violence in Ecuador

While President Noboa declares “a state of war” in the country, criminal gangs increasingly target politics


Soldiers search women as they patrol the south side of Quito, Ecuador, Friday, Jan. 12, 2024
Raids in a poor neighborhood of Quito, 12.1.2024: President Daniel Noboa declared a national state of emergency on January 8, a measure that allows the authorities to suspend the rights of the population and deploy the military in prisons. Photo: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Dolores Ochoa

The new year began in Ecuador with a shocking scene: on 9 January, roughly a dozen armed, masked men stormed the studios of a popular TV station, TC, interrupting a live broadcast and threatening staff on air. Although the group was quickly subdued and arrested by Ecuadorian police, the incident highlighted in dramatic fashion the rising wave of gang violence in the country. Only one day prior, newly elected Ecuadorian president Daniel Noboa had declared a state of emergency following chaos in and escapes from Ecuador’s prison system. In the weeks that have followed, Noboa has ratcheted up his rhetoric and declared the country to be “in a state of war” with drug cartels in the region.

Fernando Carrión is coordinator of a research project on the drug trade in eight Latin American countries and author of a forthcoming book on violence in Ecuador and Latin America, Lá producción social de la violencia en Ecuador y América Latina.

Popular support for his war is high, as many citizens are frightened and tired of the violence and ready to accept any solution. But will military and police alone be enough to subdue such a deeply rooted social problem? Can guns and prison sentences address the social roots of the criminality? What can be learned from the drug wars in neighbouring countries like El Salvador or Colombia?

The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Karin Gabbert spoke with Latin American social scientist Fernando Carrión to learn more Ecuador’s gang violence, what led to the current crisis, and what progressive solutions, if any, are feasible.

How did the takeover of the Ecuadorian television station TC come about?

It was just a matter of 13 guys who probably wanted to broadcast a message. They failed to do so, nobody was hurt, and they were arrested. But the images went around the world because the media tends to pounce on visual content and because it happened at a TV station. While this was going on, at least 200 people were taken hostage in the prisons, and there were images of that too. Why didn’t the international media cover this? They weren’t interested in the hostages in the prisons.

Why is violence exploding in Ecuador?

To understand that we need to go back in time a little. There are two key moments. One is Plan Colombia, signed in 1999 by the United States and Colombia, aimed at using the military to fight the drug cartels. The cartels responded by restructuring their operations. Before that, there was Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel and the Cali cartel. They controlled the entire process of cocaine production: coca cultivation, transportation to the US, and sales there.

This changed after 1999. Groups that the US Drug Enforcement Administration refers to as “criminal gangs” emerged in Colombia, specializing in specific aspects of the drug trade. The drug business was divided up more among different groups; it also became more international. This phenomenon is known as the cockroach effect: you concentrate on exterminating pests in one area only to have them pop up all around you. From around 2006, a large portion of cocaine production was relocated to other countries such as Ecuador and Venezuela.

But Ecuador doesn’t produce cocaine — it’s only a transit country, right?

Even the Ecuadorian police make that claim. Which seems odd, because they themselves are raiding the country’s drug labs.

Ecuador introduced the US dollar as its national currency in 2000. Since then, it has become a preferred location for money laundering and has begun to produce and transport cocaine. Ecuador thus entered the international drug trafficking sector as a consequence of US military strategy and its “Plan Colombia”.

A majority of the population supports him and the parliament backs him unanimously. President Noboa is now the leader of a united national front.

And what was the second key moment?

9/11. After the terrorist attacks, the United States declared war on three enemies: terrorists, migrants, and drug traffickers. They also sealed off the sea and air routes by which drugs were reaching Florida.

This boosted the importance of the border with Mexico. The Mexican cartels came on the scene and the narcos’ new international division of labour was established. Some groups took over cultivation in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, others control production in a number of other countries, and others took on yet other tasks.

I call it a global criminal network, a transnational corporate conglomerate. One example is the Sinaloa cartel, which is involved in 3,700 companies in 51 countries around the world. The largest Colombian cartel, the Gulf Clan, is active in 24 other countries. Whereas Pablo Escobar or Rodríguez Gacha used to control all drug trafficking activities, there are now groups in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and so on.

What is happening in Ecuador right now is not isolated from all of this. It’s part of it.

According to the government, there are 22 criminal groups working for the cartels in Ecuador. How powerful are they?

By my estimate, these groups have 50,000 members. In contrast, there are 38,000 soldiers and 60,000 police officers. So the ratio is about 1:2. However, the most important factor is their influence in society. These groups are one of the main employers of young people in the country. They practically pay the salaries of 50,000 people, who work for them in a variety of roles, including extortion, murder, delivery services, kidnapping, and selling drugs.

How much influence do the gangs have on the state?

They infiltrate state institutions through corruption and intimidation. However, their economic influence is more important. The amount of money laundered in Ecuador is around 3.5 billion US dollars, which is almost 3.5 per cent of the country’s GDP.

If the Ecuadorian economy failed to crash completely after the pandemic, it’s probably because of the influx of drug money. Those are 3.5 billion dollars that must be invested in the legal market — from luxury tourism, such as trips to the Galapagos, to car dealerships. Large companies get cheap loans and thus become part of the criminal structures. The legal economy is compromised.

So the government has no interest in combating money laundering?

No, given the weak state of the Ecuadorian economy, the government can’t afford to do so. And that applies to the whole of Latin America. Without the approximately 400 billion dollars that global crime contributes to the Latin American economy every year, the economies of some countries would collapse.

President Daniel Noboa wants to use the military to defeat organized crime. Can that work?

Noboa’s approval rating after 100 days in office was low. Now that two drug lords have been broken out of prison, it has fallen even further. So, he’s not only declaring a state of emergency, as his predecessor Lasso did 22 times without success, but going further and declaring war on criminal groups. A majority of the population supports him and the parliament backs him unanimously. Even former President Rafael Correa welcomed his declaration of war. President Noboa is now the leader of a united national front.

There are parallels to other countries. Álvaro Uribe managed to maintain his position as a leading political player in Colombia for almost 20 years by sticking to the vocabulary of war. Do you remember the referendum on the peace agreement in 2016? The government thought they would win, but then Uribe got involved and managed to scotch the peace vote by playing the war card. It’s just very shrewd, from a political point of view.

They are called different names everywhere: cartels in Mexico, the Mafia in Italy, commandos in Brazil. But it is a criminal global corporate structure that outsources its operations, as seen here in Ecuador.

In Ecuador last week, passers-by cheered soldiers as they were arresting young men.

Yes, this sentiment is spreading. The Noboa government’s idea of extraditing prisoners to the US aligns with the fact that the US has the death penalty, and that is well received. El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, has garnered the support of 90 percent of the population with his militaristic rhetoric.

Authoritarian solutions are currently very popular in Latin America. That’s the worst part: Noboa’s authoritarian response is objectively useless. You can’t defeat the narcos with military force alone. But it does garner him political capital.

What would an effective response to global crime look like?

As a prerequisite, Latin American countries would need to cooperate and develop an independent, coordinated policy. Because the alternative is an ever greater involvement of the US, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. They all support authoritarian policies: more military, more weapons.

Unfortunately, the prospects for Latin American cooperation are not good. Argentinian President Milei will probably also dismantle UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations.

It is said that the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the FARC guerrillas in Colombia has also fuelled the drug economy in Ecuador. Is that true?

Yes, the peace agreement stipulates that the FARC guerrillas withdraw and relocate to specific areas, from which the military has also withdrawn. This has resulted in disputes over territory.

For example, 12 Colombian criminal groups were competing for control of the department of Nariño, on the border with Ecuador. The Mexican cartels Jalisco Nueva Generación and Sinaloa both tried to recruit more groups to their side. Guacho, an Ecuadorian who had been active in the FARC, opened a front that initiated large-scale drug trade in Ecuador.

Europe has replaced the US as the main consumer market for cocaine, partly because the drug Fentanyl is extremely cheap in the US. Are there any other reasons?

The dynamics of the market. One reason is the overproduction of cocaine.

In 2021, Colombia and Peru nearly doubled production. Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay entered production, causing the price of cocaine to plummet. In Colombia, it was 980 dollars per kilo in 2020, but just a year later, it had dropped to 200 dollars. As a result, criminal enterprises are changing their business logic. They are establishing a consumer market in Latin America that practically did not exist before.

They are also expanding into Europe. This brings criminal networks from Italy, the Balkans, and Brazil into play. They are called different names everywhere: cartels in Mexico, the Mafia in Italy, commandos in Brazil. But it is a criminal global corporate structure that outsources its operations, as seen here in Ecuador.

One of the major problems we have is the ongoing dismantling of the state apparatus since 2017. We used to have a Ministry for the Coordination of Security, a Ministry of the Interior, a Ministry of Justice that was responsible for prisons, a body that set the anti-drug policy, and so on — all of that has been dismantled.

The murder rate in Ecuador has increased massively due to drug-related crime and gang wars.

There’s a common saying in Latin America: they make the money in the North, and we pay for it with our lives here.

According to a study by the Organization of American States, 1 percent of the profits from the cocaine trade remain in Colombia, 24 percent in transit countries such as Ecuador, and 75 percent in the consumer countries. This is a brutal structure with absurd consequences.

Consider the “coke paradise”: If you organize a big cocaine party in New York, you have to pay 120,000 dollars for a kilo. That’s a lot of money. So they invite their friends to places like Montañita, a hip party and surfing location in Ecuador. They pay for the flights and buy a kilo of cocaine for 2,000 dollars. In the end, they’ve saved a lot of money. There are destinations like this all over Latin America.

What will happen next in Ecuador?

I believe the criminal groups will keep a low profile for the time being, because confronting the state is bad for business. Their attacks will be cyclical. I think they will target politics.

2023 was an election year and it was the most violent political year in Ecuador’s history. In the municipal elections they killed three mayoral candidates, and in the presidential elections a presidential candidate, a parliamentary candidate, and even a mayor. But this was just the beginning.

Preparations for the next electoral campaign will begin on 9 February, as parties gear up for the presidential and parliamentary elections in early 2025. The case of Colombia illustrates how criminal groups are infiltrating politics. In the local election round prior to last, 14 percent of candidates were direct representatives of criminal groups.

Can the state do anything about it?

One of the major problems we have is the ongoing dismantling of the state apparatus since 2017. We used to have a Ministry for the Coordination of Security, a Ministry of the Interior, a Ministry of Justice that was responsible for prisons, a body that set the anti-drug policy, and so on — all of that has been dismantled.

Incidentally, that’s exactly what Milei is planning to do in Argentina. Do you remember the insane video from the election campaign in which he tore down most of the ministries from a pinboard? If he really dissolves them, we will all have a problem. In the Argentinian province of Rosario, cocaine-producing groups from Bolivia and Peru are linked to the local group known as Los Monos. This in turn is linked to the Comando Vermelho in Brazil and thus to the global criminal network. If Argentina, with its 47 million inhabitants, is infiltrated by these global enterprises, the impact is much greater than in smaller Ecuador.

An abridged version of this interview appeared in taz – die tageszeitung. Translated by Diego Otero and Marc Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.