Latin America Advisor

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Are Tense Relations Harming Anti-Drug Cooperation?

Tense bilateral relations between Ecuador and Mexico could have an influence on anti-drug cooperation between the two countries, experts say below. Drugs seized in Ecuador are pictured.

In recent years, Mexico’s two largest drug trafficking organizations, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel, have infiltrated local criminal gangs in Ecuador, leading to an increase in violence in recent months in the South American country. At the same time, relations between Mexico and Ecuador have become tense, in particular after Ecuador’s president authorized a raid at Mexico’s embassy in Quito to arrest former Ecuadorean Vice President Jorge Glas, which led Mexico to cut off diplomatic relations. What does the fraught relationship between the countries mean for intelligence sharing and security cooperation as they combat cartel-related violence? What effect will the chilling of relations between Mexico and Ecuador have on regional efforts to fight drug-fueled violence? What are the prospects for an improvement in relations between the two countries?

Amanda Mattingly, former U.S. diplomat and founder of ACM Global Intelligence: “The diplomatic rupture between Ecuador and Mexico is a serious blow to bilateral and regional counternarcotics efforts. It is no secret that the Jalisco New Generation and Sinaloa cartels—as well as Colombian and Albanian cartels—have infiltrated local organized crime groups and are fighting for territory in Ecuador, resulting in a dramatic increase in Ecuador’s violent crime in recent years. In 2023, Ecuador’s homicide rate rose to 45 per 100,000 people, according to Human Rights Watch, which now ranks Ecuador among the top three most violent countries in Latin America, along with Venezuela and Honduras. Ecuadorean President Daniel Noboa has taken a strong and admirable stand against the cartels and criminality since assuming office last November. But his government’s decision to raid the Mexican embassy to detain former Vice President Jorge Glas was ill-advised. Not only was the action against the U.N. Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, but it has also soured relations with Mexico at precisely the moment at which the two countries need to be working more closely together to go after the criminal networks. Rather than focusing their efforts on security cooperation, intelligence sharing and disrupting transnational cartel activity, Mexico and Ecuador are raising complaints against one another before the International Court of Justice. Hopefully, both countries will employ their best diplomats and business leaders to mend relations so they can get back to the important security work in front of them. It is in both Ecuador and Mexico’s interest to do so. Otherwise, the cartels win in this spat. Perhaps the upcoming presidential election in Mexico, and transition to a new government under Claudia Sheinbaum or Xóchitl Gálvez, will provide a moment to reset this important relationship.”

Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution: “By authorizing the raid against the Mexican embassy in Quito to snatch its former Vice President on the run, the Ecuadorean government violated the most fundamental diplomatic protocols. But even though Mexico subsequently severed relations with Ecuador, the costs to joint collaboration to combat drug trafficking groups is not high. Tragically, that’s because the baseline of law enforcement cooperation between the two countries prior to the raid was abysmally low. From the start of his administration, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador gave up on any meaningful law enforcement strategy against Mexican criminal groups. This carte-blanche attitude toward the cartels in Mexico also translated into an object lack of Mexican cooperation with regional governments. Mexico placates the United States with occasional limited-impact high-value arrests based on U.S. intelligence and sporadic drug lab busts (often fake as repeated Reuters investigative reports have documented). With Latin American governments, the Mexican collaboration is confined to underdeveloped policy posturing, echoing López Obrador’s ineffective ‘hugs, not bullets’ strategy. While socioeconomic approaches to crime are important, they need to be designed far more smartly and can’t succeed with effective law enforcement. The bipolar war between the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel is a crucial vector of violence, driving up homicides, extortion, and criminal infiltration into many legal economies from Chile to Costa Rica, Guatemala and Ecuador. For more than a decade, the Sinaloa Cartel has infiltrated a wide array of Ecuadorean institutions and cultivated official, political and criminal allies. Regional cooperation would be most useful. The next Mexican administration will have a chance to reset law enforcement efforts against the cartels and thus also cooperation with Ecuador and other countries in the Americas.”

Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: “President López Obrador had good reason to be angered by Ecuador’s police raid on the Mexican embassy in Quito, where a former Ecuadorean vice president had secured refuge from arrest. Mexico quickly severed relations with Ecuador and appropriately accused the Andean nation of violating long-standing international law. So far, no Latin American nation nor the United States nor Canada have expressed support for Ecuador’s conduct. Still, Ecuadorean authorities had some justification for seeking to re-arrest the fugitive former vice president. Those include his many indisputable crimes, as well as Ecuador’s own spiraling levels of corruption and criminal violence—and early indications are that most Ecuadoreans applauded their government’s action. Neither country’s economy will be materially affected as their mutual trade adds up to less than one percent of their combined national products. Despite some similarity with the Bukele government’s outright repression in El Salvador, there is little evidence that Ecuador is sliding toward autocracy. And even though taking a tough position toward Mexico may gain votes for Noboa’s re-election next year, it would seem to me to be an extremely risky path at this early stage in his abbreviated presidency. So far, Ecuador appears to be undertaking a series of mostly reasonable initiatives to reduce the violence and criminality that are now battering the country and its economy. But Ecuador has not offered any serious defense of its decision to mount an assault on another nation’s embassy–or sovereignty. It has crossed a very red line that might provoke similar actions from other governments under stress. The best outcome I can see would be for President Noboa to recognize his mistake, apologize to Mexico and turn over the vice president to the Mexican authorities–and continue efforts to restore order and rule of law in Ecuador.”

Diego Marroquín Bitar, inaugural Bersin-Foster North America Scholar at the Wilson Center: “The Institute for Economics and Peace reported that the expanding influence of transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) in Ecuador, coupled with a 170 percent year-on-year increase in homicide rates, has resulted in economic losses exceeding $12 billion for the country, equivalent to approximately 6 percent of its GDP, based on purchasing power parity. Unless President Daniel Noboa implements a complete overhaul of his security strategy by shifting focus away from military intervention, Ecuador will continue to serve as a logistics hub for TCOs, leading to a persistent escalation of violence. Mexico could have played a role in addressing this challenge. First, the termination of diplomatic relations leaves thousands of Ecuadorean migrants without pathways for legal and humanitarian protection as they make their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. Data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection showed a staggering 470 percent increase in border detentions of Ecuadoreans from 2022 to 2023. Second, Ecuador could have benefited from Mexico’s extensive expertise on organizations with presence in Ecuador, such as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel, and their extortion mechanisms, recruitment schemes and financial architecture through joint military training and senior-level consultations. Unfortunately, such exchanges will be unavailable regardless of the outcome of the Mexican presidential election next month, as both leading presidential candidates will likely continue Mexico’s policies and its legal case against Ecuador at the International Court of Justice. TCOs pose a challenge that transcends borders, and the situation requires closer cooperation to dismantle their operations. In the end, Noboa’s decision to raid the Mexican embassy in Quito provided short-term political gains that will likely be outweighed by the loss of deeper ties with Mexico.”

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