Skip to content

Enigmas of Ecuador

Between violence and neoliberalism

No one knows if the 80 percent approval rate enjoyed by Ecuador’s center-right president Daniel Noboa at the end of January will prove sufficient to take him to reelection next year. Either way, this will be the first time since the return of democracy in 1978 that a leader with such a political profile has even had the option of returning to office. The lasting success of Álvaro Uribe’s right in Colombia and Alberto Fujimori’s in Peru never had their corollary in Ecuador. A stable electoral hegemony was always missing, even if the voting bloc for various incarnations of the right has held predictably steady at around 40 percent in elections past.

The context of this political opportunity is clear enough: when fear dominates among the masses—fear of crime, disorder, waves of foreigners invading the country—the right tends to make its move. As per tradition, the right has posed itself as upholder of order in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.

Historically, Ecuador has been an unusual country with a “regulated chaos” that has functioned more or less in peace, with political turbulence, changes of government, and the fall of presidential regimes on the surface, but with an undercurrent of stability, characterized by informal accords between regional powers and low levels of social and political violence. All this changed abruptly with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. Homicides rose from eight per one hundred thousand to forty-six per one hundred thousand in 2023. Worsening the situation were the fifteen prison massacres involving enemy gangs that occurred between February 2021 and July 2023, which left nearly five hundred inmates dead, in a country that has never before seen turmoil of this kind. The killing of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio in August 2023, an event unprecedented in the country’s history, marked the pinnacle of this new atmosphere of crisis.

Just as elsewhere in Latin America, fear brings a demand for order at any price.

What can account for it? The administrations of Lenín Moreno (2017–2021) and Guillermo Lasso (2021–2023), which followed the progressive experiment of Rafael Correa (2007–2017), were painfully incompetent and ended in unconditional failure, accompanied by an unstoppable rise in criminality. But the deeper sources of this surge in violence were incubated during the earlier years in which Ecuador experienced its own version of corrupt, personalistic, authoritarian progressivism. Between 2009 and 2017, there was a reorganization of the cocaine trade that made Ecuador’s ports the principal point of departure for the drug, both for Mexican cartels shipping to the United States and for Albanian cartels selling in Europe. Luis Córdova-Alarcón, a highly regarded specialist in the drug trade in Ecuador, posits that in 2018, there was a collapse of the “extortionate protective rackets overseen by the state,” and that it was at that point that the violence took off. In fact, despite what Córdova takes for granted, there is nothing to indicate that transnational criminal networks have stumbled in their attempts to find support at the highest levels of the national government, the police, or the port authorities.

More probable is a dislocation within the Ecuadorian criminal networks themselves: an internal fracture, or a fracture with the Mexican and Albanian cartels. The principal organized crime groups in Ecuador were born in the 1990s as common street gangs, but in the early 2000s, when large international cartels landed in the country and money laundering was facilitated by the dollarization of the economy, they began to specialize in protecting kingpins and trafficking drugs under the aegis of the cartels.

All available accounts date the beginning of the gang wars from December 2020, when “Rasquiña” or “JL,” the leader of the Choneros gang, was assassinated. Targets of violence included enemies in rival groups and contacts in the government, the police, politics, and the business community. By February 2021, the violence had spread to the prisons. Efforts at achieving “self-regulation” had failed. An essential ingredient in this internal conflict was the 2016 peace agreement in Colombia, which led to the withdrawal of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a guerilla group, from the southern border. FARC was the one organization that imposed order, and it offered a certain statist rational for the armed criminal groups that controlled the main cocaine production and trafficking areas in Colombia.

The newfound popularity of Noboa is a result of his partial tamping-down of criminality following the surge of violence in January, which included the kidnapping of policemen, the commandeering of prisons, car bombs, and the hijacking of a television station. All evidence points to this being a distraction staged to ease the flight of the two senior Ecuadorian narcotraffickers, “Fito,” leader of the Choneros, and Colón Pico, head of the rival Lobos. Noboa quickly imposed martial law and curfews, but when that wasn’t enough, he chose to declare an “internal state of war,” which bestowed upon local criminal gangs the status of rival belligerents. The armed forces abandoned their task of protecting the borders to bring order to the prisons and carry out operations in poor and working-class neighborhoods in Ecuador—something far outside their remit—in what looks more like a propaganda effort than an effective measure for disrupting Peruvian or Colombian drug trafficking routes. Nonetheless, soldiers’ presence on the streets and highways and in residential areas is greeted effusively by the populace, even by prisoners, as it appears to deter certain of the minor crimes whose victims are generally the poor.

The shadow of Nayib Bukele is hovering over Ecuador as over all of Latin America as a harbinger of stable and lasting political hegemony. And Noboa is betting on it. His success hinges on how effectively he can reduce street crime in what remains of the year, but there is something more: an unspoken rejection of any alternative to violence, no matter how likely such a thing may be to bring about deeper structural changes. Just as elsewhere in Latin America, fear brings a demand for order at any price. But it is also the occasion for something previously unforeseen in Ecuador: a push to expand economic liberalization, privatization, and the consolidation of large companies. The crisis has allowed Noboa to push through an increase in value-added tax, the most regressive tax at all; to ratify an egregious trade agreement with China; and to revive a moribund security referendum that also authorizes precarious work contracts that pay by the hour. The danger is great: numbed by fear and the charms of an iron-fist approach to crime, Ecuador may give popular support to a classical neoliberal agenda. The road to resistance appears to run uphill.