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Ecuador in Crisis: Cartels, Political Assassinations and Geopolitical Instability

Head of Communications/International Affairs Analyst



Prison breaks, gang warfare and political assassinations - you could say it has been a turbulent few years for Ecuador, whose reputation as one of Latin America’s most stable countries has recently been shattered. According to statistics collected by German platform Statista, Ecuador’s homicide rate has surged from 6.9 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2019 to 26.7 in 2022. Pivotal to these alarming developments has been the expansion of transnational cartels across Latin America. It is difficult to be optimistic about Ecuador’s prospects of handling the threat posed by the cartels moving forward; in addition to being over half a century since the War on Drugs started, the United Nation’s World Drug Report recently concluded that the global cocaine trade had undergone a “prolonged surge in both supply and demand.” With it being highly likely that the cartels will remain in Ecuador, examining recent developments can provide a window into what to expect moving forward.


Prison Pandemonium


Ecuador’s overcrowded prisons have become renowned for their anarchic organisation and instability, particularly since the cartel problem has worsened. On numerous occasions, prisons have provided a venue for violence between rival gangs; in December 2020, the murder of Jorge Luis Zambrano Gonzalez (known by the alias Rasquiña), leader of the gang Los Choneros, led to widespread gang warfare across Ecuador. Attacks in prisons in February 2021 resulted in the deaths of 79 inmates in four prisons, as confirmed by Ecuador’s prison chief Edmundo Moncayo.


Recent reports from Ecuador suggest that no progress has been made to stabilise the country’s penal system in the years since. In addition to prevalent violence, some prisons have even failed in their foremost responsibility of keeping the inmates incarcerated. Following the decision by newly inaugurated President Daniel Noboa to move drug kingpins to maximum security prisons, convicted drug lord Jose Adolfo Macias Villamar (commonly known as “Fito”) escaped from La Regional prison on the 7th of January 2024. Fito succeeded Rasquiña as leader of the Los Choneros cartel and had been serving a 34-year sentence for drug trafficking, extortion and murder. He was due to be moved to a maximum-security prison just days later. Fito had previously escaped from La Roca in 2013 before being recaptured a few weeks later. One day after Fito’s most recent disappearance, Fabricio Colón Pico, the leader of the rival gang Los Lobos, escaped from another prison along with 31 other inmates. Chaos ensued in prisons across Ecuador, resulting in over 200 guards and administrative staff being taken hostage in at least 7 prisons.


Although security forces have secured the safe release of all but one of the prison hostages, incidents such as this are likely to transpire in the future. One reason for the government’s consistent lack of control over the prisons has been systemic corruption, a thorn in the side of many Latin American countries. According to a United Nations report, certain spaces in Ecuadorian prisons are “self-governed by detainees who are members of criminal organisations.”  By offering substantial bribes to individuals on low wages fearful of not cooperating the cartels can easily infiltrate state-controlled institutions.



There Goes the Neighbourhood


Once regarded as an “island of peace” in a nightmarish neighbourhood, Ecuador has now been submerged by the same violence that has plagued its neighbours for decades. Nestled between Colombia and Peru, the world’s two greatest cocaine-producing countries, it is perhaps surprising that Ecuador has historically avoided the cartel wars. Unlike the aforementioned “producer” countries, Ecuador now serves as a “transit country” in the narcotics pipeline. As the world’s greatest exporter of bananas, Ecuador’s ports are perfect for the cartels, who hide cocaine in huge shipping containers for exportation to international markets.


With their shared geography and common enemy in the transnational cartels, attempts to fight crime in each country in the north-western corner of South America inevitably influence their neighbours’ position. This is evidenced by the impact of Colombia’s changing drug policy on Ecuador. Unlike his predecessor Ivan Duque, who prioritised the war on drugs and enlisted the support of the United States, incumbent Colombian President Gustavo Petro has initiated a strategy for achieving “total peace.” Rather than directly fighting the cartels to curb drug production, policies have adopted alternative methods with a lower likelihood of violent responses. On the 10th of January 2023, Colombia’s National Police announced a 60% reduction in its coca plantation eradication targets. Instead of deploying security forces to fumigate plantations, the government is now offering farmers incentives to grow legal crops. However, with Colombian cocaine production rising to a record 1,738 tonnes in 2023 (as per the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), the effectiveness of Petro’s approach has been called into question. These developments have resulted in increasing amounts of cocaine flooding across the border into Ecuador. The transnational nature of the cartels adds a further layer of complexity to an already intricate problem for Ecuador, whose fate is to a certain degree contingent on the actions of external actors.


Political instability and assassinations


The 2023 general election in Ecuador was marred by controversy and gang violence, coming to a head with the assassination of candidate Fernando Villavicencio 11 days before voting began. Villavicencio’s campaign had been centred on anti-corruption, which is widely thought to have made him a key target for crime syndicates. His murder took place just one month after the assassination of Agustin Intriago, who had been serving as mayor of Manta. 


Adding yet another reminder of the cartel’s willingness to utilise terror, 13 armed men stormed a live broadcast at TC TV station in Guayaquil on the 9th of January 2024. In response, Noboa, who has adopted a hard-line approach to fighting the cartels, declared a 60-day countrywide state of “internal armed conflict”, designating over 20 narco-gangs as terrorist groups and deploying the military. Despite this, on Wednesday the 18th of January, the investigating prosecutor for the TC TV attack was shot dead in Guayaquil.


Concluding Remarks


Incumbent President Noboa is only set to serve an 18-month term due to his coming to power via a snap election. Noboa faces an uphill battle and has already seen his authority undermined by an unprecedented wave of cartel violence.  His war against the cartels will be a challenging and lengthy undertaking, with retaliatory violence being a given and success by no means guaranteed. Although his bold promise made on Instagram to “bring back peace to all Ecuadorians” will sound appealing to voters, achieving a lasting peace presents a formidable challenge. Overcoming an unconventional and transnational enemy demands a cohesive and integrated multilateral strategy. Ecuador cannot achieve such a feat on its own. The chaotic international landscape and preoccupation of key players such as the United States with the war in Ukraine and events in Gaza is an additional barrier. Regrettably, in all probability, the cartels are going nowhere.


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