4 security challenges awaiting Ecuador’s next president
Ecuador’s next president will face an unprecedented set of security challenges, as prison violence has reached record levels, the country’s corruption garners international attention and the criminal situation along the border with Colombia continues to deteriorate.
In a surprising twist, Guillermo Lasso, a 65-year-old banker, became The president-elect of Ecuador on April 11 despite a delay of nearly 12 points over left winger Andrés Arauz in the first round of the ballot. Lasso will become the first right-wing politician to assume the presidency of Ecuador in eighteen years.
But as violent crime and murder rates rise in Ecuador, the new Lasso administration will be forced to deliver on the “tough on crime” rhetoric used throughout the campaign. Lasso has promised “Zero impunity” for crime, “an iron fist for murderers and rapists” and increased cooperation with international partners to fight drug trafficking.
1. Prison gangs
Unprecedented levels of gang warfare will be one of Lasso’s main security challenges as president. Over the past two years, the country has seen an escalation in gang violence in prisons, most often associated with Brazil or Venezuela. And despite various initiatives by outgoing President Lenín Moreno to mitigate gang violence in the prison system, his policies may have only made matters worse.
In 2019, Moreno declared a prison crisis and mobilized the military to mitigate gang wars. In an attempt to disarticulate the hierarchical leadership structures of these groups, many gang leaders and members were transferred to other establishments. However, this appears to have led to the creation of derivative gangs, which are only weakly affiliated with their old structures and wage proxy wars across the country. As a result, 2020 marked the bloodiest year on record for inmates, with homicides in prisons reaching as high as a save the amount out of 43 – a slight increase from 32 in 2019 and 11 in 2018.
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By February 2021, homicides of the year had already surpassed the last two years combined, after coordinated attacks in four prisons on February 23 left at least 75 dead. Members of Los Choneros, one of Ecuador’s oldest gangs, have come under attack, aimed at overthrowing the gang’s control over illicit economies.
Competition among prison gangs for access to drug trafficking has exported prison violence from Ecuador to the streets, where gangs compete for control of microtrafficking routes and street-level drug sales. Competition over criminal economies also breeds retaliation between rival gangs, which often murder opposing gang members recently released from prison.
In the first three months of 2021, the city of Guayaquil registered 122 murders, 60% of victims having recently been released from prison. To alleviate the problem, police have set up an emergency alert system for 80 ex-prisoners, which allows them to alert authorities at their location in the event of targeted attacks.
Lasso has engaged increase the number of security cameras and other surveillance technologies to identify and respond to street violence. Ecuador currently has 4,300 cameras across the country to roam the streets in search of drug trafficking, assault and murder. But it remains to be seen how effective growing technological surveillance will be.
2. Drug trafficking
Ecuador is a major transit hub for cocaine and heroin shipments from Colombia and Peru, which cross Ecuador’s porous land borders before leaving for the United States and Europe. Ecuadorian authorities estimate that 70 percent of the drugs that cross the country exit through seaports, where corrupt networks push shipments through controls and get traffickers out of trouble.
In 2020, the Ecuadorian authorities grasped a record 128 tonnes of drugs, an increase of 36% compared to 2019. According to The data According to the annual report on the US State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy, the number of container inspections at Ecuador’s seaports increased only slightly between 2019 and 2020, indicating a higher large amount of drug shipments passing through the country, rather than advanced interdiction capabilities.
SEE ALSO: Thriving in the shadows: cocaine, crime and corruption in Ecuador
In 2020, the United States work with Ecuadorian security officials to increase their capacity for land and sea interdiction, including in port facilities. However, in 2021 Ecuador is already on track to eclipse last year’s cocaine record, having grasped 35 tonnes in the first four months – a 58 percent increase over the same period Last year.
Lasso has declared that it will strengthen cooperation with the United States and the European Union to combat drug trafficking, in addition to enhancement Special units of the prosecutors of Ecuador. Yet recent reforms to Ecuador’s penal codes may make it more difficult to prosecute large-scale traffickers, with changes to the main anti-corruption law increasing the burden of proof for prosecutors to convict.
In 2018, investigations into Ecuador’s involvement in the Odebrecht affair revealed a tight-knit corruption structure, through which ex-president Rafael Correa (2007-2017) and ex-vice-president Jorge Glas received $ 11.3 million for their 2013 election campaign in exchange for government contracts. In addition, a number of senior Correa government officials were investigation for alleged corruption linked to a large hydroelectric project.
And in 2019, Moreno’s administration opened an investigation into Correa to prove whether he had received campaign funds from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). Moreno too to have a reference to to a possible agreement between the government of Correa and elements of the FARC to authorize drug trafficking on the border between Colombia and Ecuador.
While the Moreno administration unraveled some corruption networks that infiltrated the state during Correa’s administration, government corruption continues to draw international attention to Ecuador.
Under the Moreno administration, investigations by the US Department of Justice revealed a money laundering and corruption program involving two Ecuadorian state-owned companies – Seguros Sucre and PetroEcuador. According to the investigation, Ecuadorian officials received bribe payments businessmen and entrepreneurs in exchange for lucrative contracts. Officials then concealed the payments by laundering the money through businesses and accounts in the United States and abroad.
Between 2017 and 2020, the US Department of Justice for follow-up 18 people involved in the corruption network, and information shared with the Office of the Attorney General of Ecuador resulted in the detention the Comptroller General of Ecuador, Pablo Celi, and the former secretary of the presidency, José Agusto Briones, in connection with the regime of April 13, 2021.
Lasso directly linked anti-corruption initiatives to his economic agenda, call state-level corruption “a cancer that has grown with disproportionate state growth and unproductive public spending”. To recover the stolen funds and prevent the looting of state coffers, Lasso plans strengthen Ecuador’s main monitoring and investigative institutions, as well as reform procedures for prosecuting corruption.
In the countryside, Lasso also has declared that he would work with the United Nations to create an international anti-corruption commission to prosecute past offenders – an initiative that proved effective in eliminating corruption networks in Guatemala until it was dismantled from there inside.
4. Crime at the border
The fragmented control of criminal economies along Ecuador’s borders with Colombia and Peru will pose significant security challenges to the new Lasso administration, as competition between armed groups for control of drug trafficking and routes contraband threatens precarious communities.
Prior to their demobilization in 2016, the FARC was a significant economic contributor to the remote border region between Colombia and Ecuador, providing both direct and indirect jobs linked to a number of criminal economies. Once the FARC was demobilized, the lucrative criminal economies remained but were now brutally challenged by separate criminal groups – namely the Border Commandos (Comandos de Frontera – CDF) and dissident Carolina Ramirez Front.
Integrated by members of the ex-48th FARC Front and La Constru, a post-demobilization version of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), the Border Commandos are one of the many groups who attempted to take on drug trafficking on the border between Putumayo, Colombia and Sucumbíos, Ecuador. The group used military training they once received from international FARC and La Constru contacts to reactivate trafficking routes in the area, with Putumayo being one of the main coca-growing areas and the San Miguel River serves as a highway to transport cocaine through Ecuador.
SEE ALSO: New names, old stuff for the ex-FARC mafia in Putumayo, Colombia
The Carolina Ramirez Front’s challenges for controlling drug trafficking routes have violence repelled along the border, where armed groups exercise social control over strategic municipalities in their struggle for territorial control. Sucumbíos has long been the most violent province, but since the demobilization of the FARC, they have consistently posted murder rates nearly three times the national figure. According to Yuri Quintero, coordinator of the Putumayo Human Rights Network, citizens are often caught in the crossfire, with the armed groups targeting anyone suspected of associating with the rival.
On Ecuador’s southern border in Huaquillas, Ecuador, two warring gangs vie for control of illegal border crossings, which have become more lucrative amid the COVID-19 pandemic as border restrictions have tightened the smuggling market.
Following a series of assassinations in October and November of last year, the provincial authorities militarized the Huaquillas border to neutralize the illicit economy at the center of the violence. Yet similar efforts to mitigate competitive violence in the region, such as building a border wall in 2017, or at the border militarization in 2019 after a series of homicides, have lack to stem the violence.