The state of Ecuador’s security institutions and their inability to halt runaway criminal violence has been a central theme of the country’s ongoing presidential campaign. But facing underfunding and corruption, there are doubts about whether substantial reforms are possible.
Since outgoing President Guillermo Lasso took office in 2021, violence has risen by over 300%, by far the most significant increase in Latin America. As violence has accelerated, Lasso has begun relying on the army to confront criminal gangs, with little success to date.
With the first round of presidential elections in Ecuador now over, the two candidates set to participate in the runoff have promised to reform the country’s security institutions.
Socialist Luisa González of the Citizen Revolution Movement (Movimiento Revolución Ciudadana) has published a 20-point plan, which lays out a strategy to increase funding and recruitment for security forces while having zero tolerance for excessive violence by the state. Police salaries would be increased and a greater emphasis would be placed on training, but any officers found abusing their power would be dealt with harshly.
Her rival, centrist Daniel Noboa of National Democratic Action (Acción Democrática Nacional - ADN), has spoken of working to reduce crime by tackling its socioeconomic causes, such as training police officers in non-violent conflict resolution, and investing in community policing.
Both have rejected any mano dura (iron fist) policies, as exemplified in El Salvador’s ongoing gang crackdown. However, their plans were published before the murder of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio on August 9. His death, as well as the assassinations of other politicians, revived public calls for a harsher approach to criminality.
Whether González or Noboa emerge victorious, Ecuador’s police, army, and prison system must confront shortages in resources and training as well as corruption if they are to change.
“On one hand, security forces are overwhelmed … by a lack of investigative capacity. On the other, they are so riddled with corruption that serious cases, happening both internally and externally, are dropped,” said Carla Álvarez, a security policy investigator at Ecuador’s National Institute of Higher Studies (Instituto de Altos Estudios Nacionales - IAEN Ecuador).
Any reform in Ecuador has to begin with the country’s prisons. Its maximum-security penitentiaries have become the front lines of a gang war that began in 2020 following a split between Ecuador’s former top criminal group, the Choneros, and a slew of allies-turned-rivals, including the Lagartos, Lobos, Chone Killers, and Tiguerones. Between January 2020 and July 2023, almost 500 prisoners were killed in a series of brutal, coordinated massacres, often happening in multiple prisons at the same time.
Much of the violence has been focused at three top penitentiaries: the Litoral Penitentiary in Guayaquil, the Turi Rehabilitation Center in the southern city of Cuenca, and the northern Latacunga prison, although a number of smaller regional jails have seen regular outbreaks of violence. Starting with the Choneros in 2011, Ecuador’s drug trafficking groups morphed into prison gangs once their leaders became incarcerated and began to accrue huge arsenals behind bars.
“A neglected prison system, without an adequate policy, has allowed over time for those deprived of their liberty to form a self-government,” Max Campos, an Ecuadorian security analyst and reserve police colonel, told InSight Crime. “The security institutions are not currently in a position to face a complex problem such as organized crime.”
The government’s response to this crisis has been an exercise in frustration. The country’s top gang leaders have been shuffled from prison to prison, with little visible impact on their ability to operate. A prison commission was founded only for its recommendations to be immediately disregarded. A prison closed for its insalubrious conditions was reopened but only houses a handful of prisoners. And military raids seized important arsenals that were quickly replenished.
Here, the next president could make some quick progress. Noboa in particular has spoken about letting out non-violent offenders, speeding up criminal trials, and trying to find alternatives to pretrial detention, which sees those awaiting trial often jailed alongside hardened gang members.
But institutional corruption may be an obstacle here. “There needs to be more scrutiny on prisons. How are high-powered weapons allowed to enter prisons?” explained Will Freeman, a member of the US Council on Foreign Relations. “Judges and prosecutors also seem to be succumbing to corruption or pressure in growing numbers, based on the rate at which captured gang leaders are let out of prison.”
One example of this came when one of Ecuador’s most notorious gangsters, Junior Roldán, alias "JR,” was freed from jail in February 2023 on “good behavior” only to rapidly flee to Colombia where he was later killed. Two months earlier, he had been briefly freed and jailed again after being found carrying a high-powered weapon just hours after his release.
As with each of these reforms, the next president must not only address the ability of the prison service to run penitentiaries safely, but also ensure internal corruption is rooted out.
The Ecuadorian public has little trust in the police. A November 2022 poll by Ipsos found that 75% of the Ecuadorian public find them unreliable.
Fixing this will require concerted investments and planning by the next president. But the track record of the outgoing government suggests such investments take a lot of time.
The police partially blame their poor performance on a lack of funding for staff, money, and equipment. For example, in February, only ten out of 57 police patrol cars were functioning in Guayaquil’s neighborhood of Nueva Prosperina, one of the most violent in all of Ecuador, according to an investigation by Primicias. Recent calls for suppliers to provide armored vehicles, bulletproof jackets, rifles, and sidearms all failed because no national companies came forward to provide them, according to data from Ecuador’s public procurement database. These were finally awarded to international companies in August 2023.
In January 2022, following a massacre of seven people, Lasso promised that $9 million would immediately be unlocked to provide extra funding for Guayaquil police. The money took four months to arrive. In July 2023, the police received millions of rounds of ammunition that had been promised nine months earlier, and pledges of other essential equipment remain unfulfilled. Lasso even recently signed a decree authorizing the police to use 33,000 weapons seized from criminal gangs.
Given the decentralized model Ecuador’s police adopted in 2012, trying to improve specific units may work better than sweeping top-down reforms.
“It may be more feasible to target subunits of these institutions for capacity-building and reform first,” Freeman said.
Police corruption poses another problem. In May 2022, InSight Crime reported on how police and military weapons were being sold to or stolen by organized crime in increasing numbers.
And US ambassador to Ecuador, Michael Fitzpatrick, rang the alarm bell about police corruption in 2021, warning that “narco-generals” were actively working to sink important criminal cases. The United States then canceled visas for 19 high-ranking police officials. Three of these were suspected of links to organized crime after an internal review, according to Interior Minister Patricio Carrillo.
“The next president will need legislative support to make headway. [Their priorities should be] to increase resources and pay for police and judges, provide better protection, and tackle these issues of corruption and complicity within their ranks,” said Freeman.
The use of the armed forces to fight organized crime has been a controversial tactic under Lasso. After Ecuador saw record-high homicides in 2022, the president began calling for the army to be deployed against criminal groups. Shortly after the country’s Public and State Security Council (Consejo de Seguridad Pública y del Estado - COSEPE) declared these groups to be “terrorists” in April, Lasso signed a decree ordering the army to begin military operations nationwide to fight “terrorist organizations and people.”
This pushed Ecuador down a well-trodden path of Latin American governments using their armies for purposes they are not trained for, with the government justifying the move through inflammatory rhetoric. Mexico, El Salvador, and Jamaica provide some recent regional examples.
González and Noboa have not made it clear whether they would continue using the army in this way, nor have they made mention of such responsibilities for the armed forces in their security plans.
Some analysts believe that once the army is legally empowered to go after criminal groups, the genie cannot easily be put back in the bottle.
“There will be plenty of warnings from civil society and security analysts about the risks of using the military in this manner,” James Bosworth, founder of political risk analysis firm Hxagon, told InSight Crime. “But with the country facing an increasingly violent threat, the political reality is that there is no president who is going to pull the military back from this fight.”
The murder of Villavicencio and the continued escalation of the homicide rate mean Ecuador’s security crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Reforming prisons, the police, and the army while dealing with this crisis will require an intricate balancing act for González and Noboa. Failure to quickly bring crime and insecurity under control will likely fuel louder calls and greater support for mano dura tactics.
While both candidates have shied away from backing mano dura, this could change.