Unraveling Ecuador’s Security Crisis: Can Tough Measures Confront Organized Crime?

˙ Voces

The security crisis in Ecuador has surged to unprecedented levels, casting a chilling shadow across the nation. The distressing events on January 8 and 9 are a demonstration of a crisis that has worsened due to the expansion of organized crime, fueled by successive governments’ unwillingness, or inability, to properly tackle it. To effectively address escalating insecurity, short-term punitive measures alone are insufficient unless complemented by medium and long-term strategies that address the root causes of violence and crime.  

Ecuador witnessed chaos shortly after two key leaders from the criminal groups ‘Los Choneros’ and ‘Los Lobos’ escaped from prison. Their escape followed Ecuador’s newly elected President Noboa’s announcement of ‘Plan Fénix,’ a national security strategy focused on investing in strategic and operational intelligence, including the construction of maximum-security prisons and extradition of organized crime leaders. Riots broke out in three prisons and over 100 prison guards were taken hostage.  

The situation escalated with kidnappings, car bombs, brazen armed attacks on a TV station (TC Televisión) and public universities, as well as the recent murder of the prosecutor investigating these attacks. This occurred at a time when Ecuador’s attorney general, Diana Salazar, disclosed ‘Caso Metástasis,’ a corruption investigation implicating state officials in drug trafficking. 

Citizens are reasonably demanding immediate answers as the rapid escalation of criminal violence in Ecuador calls for urgent and effective actions. President Noboa has declared a nationwide state of emergency, a tool employed by previous governments. In doing so, he went as far as to declare the existence of an ‘internal armed conflict,’ raising questions about the applicability of international law.  

Considering that the security crisis in Ecuador stems from interrelated structural factors, any response cannot be confined to short-term measures. It must also include structural solutions encompassing social, economic, and political reforms addressing the root causes of violence. With a recorded rate of 45 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants (twice the rate in 2022), Ecuador has become one of the most dangerous countries globally. These rates did not spike overnight. The failure of previous governments to implement effective long-term public policies addressing poverty, corruption, a prison system run by criminal gangs, unemployment, education disparity, and drug abuse has contributed to widespread insecurity.  

In a region grappling with criminality, the adoption of abusive punitive security policies, blatantly exemplified by El Salvador’s ‘mano dura’ model, has gained popularity due to its short-term effectiveness in addressing insecurity, despite its huge costs to the rule of law incurred.  

The recent events in Ecuador have terrorized a population that has not experienced this type of violence before, fostering popular support for the implementation of similar tough-on-crime measures. President Noboa’s limited one-and-a-half-year term, as well as the escalating demand for these types of measures may compel the president to strategically embrace this approach to garner public support prior to the 2025 election. 

In the upcoming days, President Noboa has the urgent task of restoring at least some semblance of tranquility that allows Ecuadorian citizens to resume their day-to-day activities. Yet, to succeed in addressing the escalating security crisis, he should demonstrate that Ecuador can address insecurity and violence within the rule of law through a dual strategy. Combining punitive measures with a corruption-free judiciary and proactive social initiatives targeting root causes provides a feasible solution for a sustainable and effective long-term security policy. 

This approach includes an impartial administration of punitive measures, building public trust in the judiciary, and addressing socio-economic factors that contribute to criminal behavior. To achieve this, international collaboration and learning from successful models is not only crucial, but necessary. The support expressed by 38 countries, including the United States, offers a glimmer of hope. However, it is essential that this support goes beyond security infrastructure investment. 

Adopting harder, long-term solutions to structural problems is less politically rewarding, particularly in the context of an upcoming electoral cycle. Yet the easy road will not effectively solve the problems that Ecuador faces today. The Noboa government’s policies in the coming months will be essential in determining whether or not his leadership will set the stage for an alternative model that ensures the rule of law, democratic values, and fundamental rights for a secure future. 


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