Dollarization, drugs and armed conflict: What’s behind the violence in Ecuador

President Daniel Noboa declared a state of "internal armed conflict" while a group of gunmen broke into a TV studio on Tuesday. Here’s why violence has exploded

At least 10 people have been killed in Ecuador since Monday in an outburst of gang-related violence. Prisoners have kidnapped over 100 police officers, hospitals have been bombed and 70 people have been arrested. The military is patrolling streets that are deserted because the population is afraid to leave home.

President Daniel Noboa declared an internal armed conflict in the country on Tuesday afternoon, just as armed gunmen broke into a TV studio and took the journalists hostage live on air. 

Images shared on social media showed armed attackers trying to take over Guayaquil University as students fled, while other footage appeared to show police officers being shot by prison inmates. The wave of violence marks a major security meltdown in a country that has been suffering in recent years from worsening violence linked to the drugs trade.

Noboa’s declaration of an internal armed conflict reinforced the state of emergency that had been declared Monday in response to gang leader Adolfo Macías — known as “El Fito” — escaping prison on Sunday and a series of bombings, hospital attacks and riots in different prisons on the following two days.

“In Quito, the city is dead,” said María Fernanda Noboa (no relation to the president), country director for Ecuador for the Amassuru Women in Security group. “There are very few people on the streets, they don’t want to go out because they are afraid of dying.”

Organized crime and drug trafficking in Ecuador can be traced back to the birth of gangs such as Los Choneros in the 1990s. Macías is the current leader of Los Choneros, one of the most important gangs in Ecuador. But 30 years ago, they were not “professionals,” like they are now. “They started out with common felonies, but then they allied with the big drug cartels,” María Fernanda told the Herald.

Ecuador sits between Colombia and Peru, the two largest producers of cocaine globally — and the country has now started to make its own, added the analyst.

She cites two breaking points that ultimately led to the current violence. The country adopted the dollar as its official currency in 2000. That means criminal groups don’t have to exchange currencies, which can leave a tricky paper trail, as the president himself explained in an interview with Argentine news channel TN last August. 

In neighboring Colombia, the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known as FARC in Spanish), a powerful guerrilla involved in drug production and distribution, prompted some dissident groups to flee to Ecuador, starting new businesses there.

Cocaine, heroin, fentanyl

Ports such as Guayaquil became key for shipping drugs from Colombia to the United States and Europe via the Pacific Ocean, while the dollarized economy made drug dealing “a very profitable business for those who were taking their first steps and those who laundered money,” the analyst said. It’s not just cocaine: Ecuador has also become a smuggling route for heroin and fentanyl.

Criminal operations soon spread from Colombia to Ecuador, starting with drug trafficking and expanding into organized crime such as human trafficking, illegal arms sales, illegal mining, and wildlife trafficking. Mexican, Peruvian and Venezuelan cartels muscled their way into Ecuador.

Formerly amateur gangs became professional, not only trafficking drugs but also carrying out armed attacks and planting explosives and bomb cars. Almost 8,000 homicides were registered in Ecuador in 2023, including 400 children. Murders in public places have risen by 800% since 2018.

The final pieces of the puzzle are corruption and impunity. Drugs gangs have infiltrated the judicial system, the police, the military, and the government itself. Just a month ago, around 30 people including judges, policemen and prosecutors were arrested in a case known as “Metastasis,” which is investigating ties between the government, state institutions and the drug trade.

Is there a solution to this? María Fernanda said Ecuador “has been fighting violence with more violence.”

“Strategic anticipation has not been taken seriously,” she said. “And now we are in this situation, we are just now worrying about what has been going on.”

Laws and security operations “have taken a punitive turn,” María Fernanda added. The declaration of an internal armed conflict means the military are now in charge of the operations, with the police acting just as a complementary party. 

She also warned that, given there is no civilian control over the armed forces and they are also involved in these illegal operations, this could ultimately be a threat to democracy.

You may also be interested in: Murder of Ecuadorian presidential candidate is an attempt to ‘sabotage’ elections, Lasso says


All Right Reserved.  Buenos Aires Herald