Can Ecuador’s Next President Make the Country Safer?
Ecuadorean President-elect Daniel Noboa, who takes office next Thursday, has raised the possibility of using the military to fight drug traffickers and has said he would call for a referendum on the subject within his first 100 days in office. Noboa is taking office in the midst of a surge in narcotrafficking and violence, which has led the homicide rate to soar. Why has outgoing President Guillermo Lasso been unable to curb violence and the homicide rate, and what must Noboa do differently? Will voters approve using the military to fight drug traffickers? What challenges will Noboa face in improving security given that his term lasts only 18 months?
Daniela Chacón Arias, executive director at Fundación TANDEM and former Quito vice mayor and city council member: “Outgoing President Guillermo Lasso’s ineffectiveness in addressing violence and the rising homicide rate is mainly due to his lack of public sector experience and a team without a clear strategy. Their focus on combating drug trafficking without tackling the root causes of violence created a policy gap, fueling a surge in narcotrafficking and violence, and presenting challenges for President-elect Daniel Noboa. Noboa faces the task of proving results in just 18 months, and he shares Lasso’s governmental inexperience. His potential for re-election and the implementation of a comprehensive plan may be hindered by a steep learning curve. Noboa may resort to political clientelism, a strategy that his parents successfully used in previous campaigns, offering state gifts to vulnerable populations for re-election support. While this may boost short-term popularity, concerns arise regarding addressing the fundamental issues of violence and drug trafficking. Noboa’s proposal to use the military against drug traffickers and his plan for a referendum within his first 100 days indicate a desire for action. If promptly conducted, the referendum could secure political support, and Ecuadoreans would perceive it as a vote on the president’s popularity rather than the issue itself. Frustration with the previous administration’s inefficiency fuels a willingness to explore new approaches for peace restoration. Yet Noboa’s security initiatives’ success relies on addressing root causes, assembling an experienced team and navigating governance complexities within a limited timeframe.”
Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America: “It’s hard to think of other jurisdictions where violent crime rates increased sixfold in just four years, but that is what has happened in once-peaceful Ecuador. Outgoing President Guillermo Lasso, who governed during the pandemic and a chaotic post-FARC realignment of Colombia’s trafficking networks, lacked the institutional tools to respond to criminal violence, which originated in prisons and along trafficking routes but has since metastasized. Like Lasso, Daniel Noboa now must address the challenge while able to employ only his government’s weak, neglected, corruption-riven security sector. Under those circumstances, sending in the military to fight crime may seem like an attractive option. But there are very few examples in the hemisphere of violent crime declining significantly after troop deployments, and many examples of such deployments increasing human rights abuses. Unlike insurgencies, organized crime is an ‘enemy’ that prefers not to fight the government. It operates by penetrating and corrupting the same state institutions that are supposed to be fighting it. That makes organized crime a far more challenging adversary, requiring a smarter approach than brute force. Instead of troops, Ecuador needs the capacity to identify criminal masterminds, track financial flows, respond to violence ‘hotspots,’ improve response times, support community-level violence initiatives, weed out corrupt officials and many other duties that an adequately resourced civilian security sector performs. Noboa has issued vague proposals to fill some of those long-term institutional needs. The concern is that he may neglect these—which do not yield short-term results—in favor of a military response, which offers the illusion of action and carries big human rights risks.”
John Polga-Hecimovich, professor of political science at the United States Naval Academy: “President-elect Noboa faces the daunting task of addressing organized crime, a sharply deteriorating security situation and spiraling drug-related violence. These issues have grown out of a confluence of factors: Ecuador’s strategic geographical location, demobilization of the FARC in Colombia beginning in 2017 and especially the assassination of Jorge Luis Zambrano, the leader of the powerful Los Choneros gang. That killing, in December 2020, shattered the group’s hegemony, created a criminal power vacuum and upset the balance of power among Ecuador’s organized criminal groups. A weak state and an ineffective justice system have only made matters worse. Noboa intends to build a broad coalition that is likely to support the government on its security proposals—even if it disagrees on other issues. Among other things, the president-elect plans on reorganizing the Interior Ministry, which would coordinate security policy with the Ministry of Defense, and has vowed to fulfill a Lasso government pledge to budget $800 million for security spending. Militarization also appears likely, which would follow in the footsteps of several other countries in the region, including Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. Unfortunately, this strategy is rarely successful at addressing the root causes of organized crime, which include a lack of educational and economic opportunities, social marginalization and weak state capacity. Instead, a militarized response to drug trafficking has often had the effect of reducing the state’s strength, as in Mexico. Ultimately, there is probably little Noboa can do in 18 months to fundamentally improve the country’s security situation in a sustainable way; however, if he manages to do so, plan on him winning re-election in 2025.”
Diego Andrés Almeida, managing partner at Almeida Guzmán & Asociados in Quito: “Ecuador has faced a surge in violence and the homicide rate, reaching over 6,000 homicides between January and October. According to official police statistics, this number is more than 70 percent higher compared to the same period in the previous year. A lack of reliable intelligence, equipment, control inside jails, and authorization for the use of force, has impeded police action in the past. The first hurdle for President Noboa will be the authorization of the Constitutional Court to include the question about military action within the referendum. The National Assembly could also intervene on the matter, given that the reform requires the amendment of the Constitution’s Article 158 (for enabling the military to assist the police to fight organized crime). Unless Noboa has solid arguments for the reform and backing from the previously mentioned entities, the reform might not be feasible. If the question becomes a referendum, it has a high possibility of winning, as military intervention would arguably reduce violence. To improve security, Noboa must rely on international aid, especially in terms of intelligence and resources. Reorganizing the high command of the police and armed forces should also be on the incoming president’s agenda. Due to the sophistication of the drug trafficking network, Ecuador must improve the equipment used to combat crime. To reduce crime and combat drug trafficking, Noboa’s efforts should be directed to improving controls in seaports as well as in the high seas and using adequate technology, such as scanners, radars, drones and naval vessels.”
Santiago Mosquera, head of research at Analytica Investments in Quito: “The new administration is taking office with two main objectives: improving security and increasing formal employment. While the latter could take more time, the former requires fast success before the end of the honeymoon period traditionally given to new governments. Considerable security improvements, both observed and perceived by the population, are the only way hiring could increase significantly during Noboa’s short 15-month term, which in turn would improve his chances for re-election. Compared to the closing numbers for 2022—when the economy showed economic growth, inflation was among the lowest in Latin America, public accounts in the nonfinancial public sector were balanced and the current account was still considerably in surplus territory—the picture at the end of 2023 does not look that promising. An economic slowdown, lower tax collection, lower export revenues, power rationing and the potentially devastating effects of the El Niño weather phenomenon will immediately test the new administration to its core. During his recent international tour, President-elect Noboa’s main goal was to convince investors and multilateral organizations that Ecuador needs financial support in 2024 to address economic and security challenges, and that this endeavor requires expansionary fiscal policies in the short term. In his statements, Noboa also hinted that a credible fiscal consolidation strategy could be implemented only in 2025 once he successfully wins re-election. Instead of calming investors, they responded with their feet with a market selloff.”
Luis Barrios, professor of Latin American and Latinx studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice: “There is nothing new about the strategy that President-elect Noboa is proposing. It is just more of the same. With this approach, he joins those people who look for the fever in the blanket and not in the patient. It is no secret that in Ecuador many police, military officers and politicians are part of this corruption. Noboa should look for experts inside and outside of Ecuador who can advise him on different approaches concerning mass poverty and inequality as the causes of drug use, trafficking and violence.”
At the Inter-American Dialogue, José Miguel Insulza described the events of September 30, in which Ecuadoran police brought the country to a standstill after they rioted and trapped President Rafael Correa in a Quito hospital for several hours.