Ecuador's escalating security crisis: A nation plagued by uncontrolled violence

The nation has lost control of its jails, which are now governed by criminal gangs

TOPSHOT-ECUADOR-PRISON-ADOLESCENT-RIOT-FIRE Ecuadorean police officers guard inmates at the Virgilio Guerrero Detention Centre for Adolescent Offenders after a riot attempt, in northern Quito | AFP

Once-peaceful Ecuador has descended into a wave of uncontrolled violence as if cursed by a malevolent fog. The security breakdown plaguing the country has spread from prisons onto the streets where bloodshed is now common. 

Beyond two high-profile political assassinations, the nation has lost control of its jails, which are now governed by criminal gangs engaged in constant brutality.

The South American nation faces a dire security crisis that has intensified under President Guillermo Lasso, explains prominent Guayaquil Constitutional Attorney José Antonio Chiriboga, speaking exclusively to THE WEEK. 

The Lasso administration has allowed criminal groups to gain control, says Chiriboga. "On the streets, cartels battle for territory, causing collateral deaths of innocent people."

Over 400 inmates have been killed behind bars since 2021, many in grisly massacres including the murder of 79 inmates in February 2021. In July this year, 31 more were killed in a penitentiary clash. Homicides nationwide are also rising, pointed out Chiriboga.

He blames Lasso's policies and preceding President Lenin Moreno for weakening security institutions. "Dismantling the Intelligence Service and downgrading the Interior Ministry debilitated law enforcement," he explains.

This July, 96 prison guards were taken hostage and hundreds of inmates began a hunger strike to protest lockup conditions and violence. Days later, Ecuador’s attorney general announced 18 dead in an uprising at a Guayaquil penitentiary.

The prison system has long been the main theatre of violence, notes the constitutional attorney. But recently bloodshed has spilled onto Ecuador’s streets as the country has become a trafficking hub between the planet's two largest cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru, and North American and European markets.

With no history of growing coca crops or cocaine production, Ecuador's security forces have struggled to confront gangs inside crowded prisons where inmates often run extensive and violent drug and criminal networks. 

Despite five different prison directors tried by Lasso, killings inside continue, noted Chiriboga. Now, outside the prisons, contract killings and cartel territorial disputes are ruling the streets. "The government does not control the streets or the jails,” said Chiriboga. He blames Lasso for weakened security institutions and “apathy” towards the deteriorating situation.

"Prisons are dominated by over 10 gangs engaged in constant violence," Chiriboga said. "Lasso declared states of emergency in violent provinces but crime continues unabated."

Extortion by gangs known as "vaccinators" has spread fear. Chiriboga charges it is Lasso's "ineptitude and apathy" in the face of these threats that led to his early removal from office.

In 2015, Ecuador was considered the second safest country in Latin America, surpassed only by Chile, points out Chiriboga in frustration.

In 1989, the country had a rate of 11.20 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, a figure that increased to 15.25 in 1996 and reached a peak of 18.74 in 2009. However, by 2015, this rate had decreased to 6 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. At the end of the term of former President Rafael Correa in 2017, the indices dropped to a level of 5.81 per 100,000 inhabitants.

"The penetration of the Albanian mafia, Mexican drug cartels such as the Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco New Generation cartel, as well as proximity to Colombia," pointed out Chiriboga, "exacerbated by conditions of poverty and marginalisation in parts of society, have contributed to an unprecedented increase in violence in the country." This includes contract killings, kidnappings, extortions, and the formation of criminal gangs.

Ecuador violence AFP A soldier frisks a man on an access road to the Turi prison in Cuenca, Ecuador

"The ineffectiveness and lack of empathy of the last two governments led by Moreno and Lasso, who aimed to remove the influence and legacy of former President [Rafael] Correa's government, resulted in the dismantling of some institutions related to security in Ecuador," explained Chiriboga. 

"For example, the Ministry of Security Coordination, responsible for ensuring political, personal, community, and environmental security, was dissolved. The Ministry of Interior was transformed into the Ministry of Government, and other changes weakened public security in Ecuador."

This led to crises in the prison system, says Chiriboga, adding that these began during Moreno's government. For the first time, there were reports of "various criminal gangs dominating prisons and disputing territories outside to commit criminal acts, especially related to drug trafficking."

In 2017, the rate of violent deaths per 10,000 prisoners was 2.14. In 2020, this rate increased sixfold to 13.6, and in early 2021, between January and February, it rose to 21.25 violent deaths. 

Chiriboga analysed the conditions for the government's declaration of a state of emergency and its relocation of high-risk prisoners, "but this was not enough to contain the violence in prisons," he said. The largest prison tragedy occurred on February 23, 2021, with a confrontation between gangs and riots resulting in 79 deaths.

"This crisis also spilt onto the streets, where drug trafficking expanded into new territories and resulted in many murders related to turf disputes, affecting innocent people," said Chiriboga. "In the past three years, a significant amount of drugs has been seized, suggesting that the problem will continue for some time."

On May 24, 2021, Lasso, a banker, assumed the presidency of Ecuador, notes Chiriboga, drawing a line in time to show the country’s descent into violence. "During his government, incompetence and inaction regarding national problems became evident. Crimes, contract killings, and extortions, including the activity known as 'vaccinators,' which involves extorting businesses and small businesses, caused fear and apprehension in the population."

"The government lost control of prisons, which are now dominated by gangs that enjoy luxuries inside them, such as furnished dormitories, cellphones, blades and firearms, money, and even recreational facilities," he said. "Additionally, these gangs extort other prisoners for food, shelter, and protection."

Until 2022, there were 413 violent deaths in prisons, and the violence continues to this day. Organized crime has also taken over territories in the provinces of Esmeraldas, Guayas, Los Ríos, Manabí, and, to a lesser extent, Pichincha, which holds Quito, the capital. In addition to gang-member casualties, bystanders, including minors, have been killed in these areas.

After 31 deaths on July 25, 2023, the government declared states of exception in conflict-ridden areas and eased rules for citizens to arm themselves, "but these measures have not had a significant impact, according to public perception," said the constitutional attorney.

In the middle of impeachment proceedings by Congress, this May Lasso triggered a "muerte cruzada" mechanism, a sort of mutual assured destruction measure in which he dissolved Congress but also shortened his presidential term, triggering new presidential and legislative elections. The first round was held on August 20. 

But the elections were already lost to violence, says Chiriboga. Two members of the Revolución Ciudadana party were killed, followed by the assassination of Agustín Intriago, the mayor of the coastal city of Manta, which caused great turmoil across the country. 

This August, anti-corruption presidential candidate Fernando was assassinated after a campaign event in Quito, days before the election amid a sharp rise in organised, violent crime.

After a runoff election this October 15, the next government will take office in December 2023. "The Ecuadorian people long for an effective response," said Chiriboga.

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