Ecuador’s next president will face an unprecedented set of security challenges, as prison violence has soared to record levels, the country’s corruption is receiving international attention and the criminal situation along the border with Colombia continues to sour.
In a surprising twist, Guillermo Lasso, a 65-year-old banker, became Ecuador’s president-elect on April 11 despite having trailed left-wing Andrés Arauz by nearly 12 points in the first round of voting. Lasso will become the first right-wing politician to assume Ecuador’s presidency in eighteen years.
But as violent crime and murder rates surge in Ecuador, the incoming Lasso administration will be forced to deliver on the “tough on crime” rhetoric employed throughout the campaign. Lasso has promised “zero impunity” for crime, an “iron hand for murderers and rapists,” and increased cooperation with international partners to combat drug trafficking.
1. Prison Gangs
Unprecedented levels of gang warfare will be one of Lasso’s foremost security challenges as President. In the past two years, the country has seen an escalation of gang violence in prisons, most commonly associated with Brazil or Venezuela. And despite various initiatives by outgoing President Lenín Moreno to mitigate gang violence in the penitentiary system, his policies may have only made things 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, numerous gang leaders and members were transferred to other facilities. However, this appears to have led to the creation of derivative gangs, who are only loosely affiliated with their former 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 a record amount of 43 – an uptick from the 32 in 2019, and 11 in 2018.
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By February 2021, the homicides for the year had already surpassed the past two years combined, after coordinated attacks in four prisons on February 23 left at least 75 inmates dead. Members of Los Choneros, one of Ecuador’s oldest gangs, were the subject of the attacks, which sought to topple the gang’s control of illicit economies.
Competition between prison gangs for access to drug trafficking has exported Ecuador’s prison violence to the streets, where gangs vie for control of microtrafficking routes and street-level drug sales. Competition over criminal economies also breeds retribution between rival gangs, who often assassinate members of opposing gangs that have recently been released from prison.
In the first three months of 2021, the city of Guayaquil registered 122 assassinations, with 60 percent of the victims having recently been released from prison. To mitigate the problem, police implemented an emergency alert system for 80 ex-prisoners, which allows them to alert authorities of their location in the case of targeted attacks.
Lasso has committed to increasing security cameras and other surveillance technologies to identify and respond to street violence. Ecuador currently relies on 4,300 cameras across the country to scan the streets for drug deals, muggings and murders. But it remains to be seen how effective increasing technological surveillance will be.
2. Drug Trafficking
Ecuador is a major transit hub for cocaine and heroin shipments from Colombia and Peru, which flow across Ecuador’s porous land borders before departing for the United States and Europe. Ecuadorian authorities estimate that 70 percent of drugs passing through the country exit via maritime ports, where corruption networks wave shipments through controls and allow traffickers to buy their way out of trouble.
In 2020, Ecuadorian authorities seized a record-breaking amount of 128 tons of drugs – an increase of 36 percent from 2019. According to data from the US State Department’s annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, the number of container inspections in Ecuador’s maritime ports only increased slightly between 2019 and 2020, indicating a larger quantity of drug shipments passing through the country, rather than evolved interdiction capabilities.
In 2020, the US worked with Ecuadorian security officials to increase their land and maritime interdiction capacity, including at port facilities. However, in 2021, Ecuador is already on pace to eclipse last year’s record haul of cocaine, having seized 35 tons in the first four months – a 58 percent increase from the same period last year.
Lasso has stated that he will increase cooperation with the United States and the European Union to combat drug trafficking, in addition to strengthening Ecuador’s special prosecutors’ units. Yet recent reforms to Ecuador’s criminal codes could make it more difficult to prosecute large-scale traffickers, with changes to the chief anti-corruption law raising the burden of proof for prosecutors to convict.
In 2018, investigations into Ecuador’s involvement in the Odebrecht case revealed a close-knit corruption structure, by 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 high-ranking Correa government officials were investigated for alleged corruption linked to a major 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 also alluded to a potential agreement between Correa’s government and elements of the FARC to allow drug trafficking at the Colombia-Ecuador border.
While the Moreno administration untangled certain corruption networks that infiltrated the state during Correa’s administration, governmental corruption continues to draw international attention to Ecuador.
During the Moreno administration, US Department of Justice investigations revealed a money laundering and bribery scheme that involved two Ecuadorian state-owned companies – Seguros Sucre and PetroEcuador. According to the investigation, Ecuadorian officials received bribery payments from businessmen and contractors in exchange for lucrative contracts. Officials then concealed payments by laundering the money through companies and accounts in the US and offshore.
Between 2017 and 2020, the US Department of Justice prosecuted 18 individuals involved in the corruption network, and information shared with the Ecuador’s Attorney General’s Office resulted in the detention of Ecuador’s general comptroller, Pablo Celi, and the ex-secretary of the presidency, José Agusto Briones, in connection to the scheme on April 13, 2021.
Lasso has directly linked anti-corruption initiatives to his economic agenda, calling state-level corruption “a cancer that has developed with the disproportionate growth of the state and unproductive public spending.” To recoup stolen funds and prevent the pilfering of state coffers, Lasso plans to fortify Ecuador’s principal institutions of control and investigation, as well as reform procedures for prosecuting corruption.
On the campaign trail, Lasso also stated that he would work with the United Nations to create an international anti-corruption commission to prosecute past offenders – an initiative that proved successful in rooting out corruption networks in Guatemala until it was dismantled from within.
4. Border Crime
Fragmented control of criminal economies along Ecuador’s borders with Colombia and Peru will pose significant security challenges for the incoming Lasso administration, as competition between armed groups for control of drug trafficking and smuggling routes threatens precarious communities.
Prior to its demobilization in 2016, the FARC was a significant economic contributor to the remote Colombia-Ecuador border region, providing both direct and indirect jobs related to a number of criminal economies. Once the FARC demobilized, the lucrative criminal economies remained but were now brutally contested by distinct criminal groups – namely the Border Commandos (Comandos de Frontera – CDF) and the dissident Carolina Ramirez Front.
Integrated by members of the former FARC’s 48th 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 that have tried to take over drug trafficking at the border between Putumayo, Colombia and Sucumbíos, Ecuador. The group has leveraged the military training once received from the FARC and La Constru’s international contacts to reactivate trafficking routes in the region, as Putumayo is one of Colombia’s main coca crop production areas and the San Miguel River serves as a highway for moving cocaine through Ecuador.
Challenges from the Carolina Ramirez Front for control of drug trafficking routes have spurned violence along the border, where the armed groups exert social control over strategic municipalities in their fight for territorial control. Sucumbíos has long been Ecuador’s most violent province, but since the demobilization of the FARC, it has routinely posted murder rates nearly three times higher than the national figure. According to Yuri Quintero, a coordinator for Putumayo’s 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 feuding gangs compete for control of illegal border crossings, which have become more lucrative amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as border restrictions have bolstered the market for contraband.
Following a series of assassinations in October and November of last year, 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 the construction of a controversial border wall in 2017, or border militarization in 2019 after a series of homicides, have failed to stem the violence.