On 24 July 2023, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency in several provinces of the South American country. The state of emergency grants the President extensive powers and imposes a curfew. The move comes after years of increasing violence, culminating in widespread riots in Ecuadorian prisons and the murder by drug cartels of Agustín Intriaga, the mayor of Manta, Ecuador’s 7th largest city. How is it possible that what was once a rapidly developing and stable country has become a bastion of violence, crime and drugs?
Since 2005, Ecuador has experienced a long period of economic boom. After large oil reserves were found in the country, GDP and the standard of living of the population began to increase rapidly. The country had been politically stable in terms of security without the presence of drug cartels, military coups and kleptocratic corruption. Ecuador became one of the best countries to live in South America.
Since 2013, world demand for cocaine has increased dramatically. South American drug cartels have recognised this opportunity and have begun trying to increase the production of the drug massively. The cartels have been aided by the boom in coca cultivation in Colombia, which is the main ingredient in the production of cocaine. In Mexico and Colombia, traditional drug producers, the cartels encountered organised resistance from experienced local security forces who were able to curb cocaine production effectively. The cartels, therefore, decided to move cocaine production to Ecuador, which shares a common border with Colombia.
In particular, the Mexican cartels, Gulf and Sinaloa, began smuggling raw coca into Ecuador in 2018 and processing it into cocaine in the country. They then smuggled the cocaine through the bustling Ecuadorian ports to the US and Europe. This strategy proved to be very effective. The Ecuadorian security forces were underfunded and had almost no experience in fighting the cartels. As a result, crime, drugs and violence flourished, and Ecuadorian society slowly disintegrated.
At the same time, the cartels began to compete with each other, fight against the security forces and intimidate the local population. The result was a rapid increase in homicides in the country. Last year, 4 500 murders took place in Ecuador, and the security forces managed to seize 210 tonnes of drugs. These are figures that have broken all former records. The cartels have managed to take over entire urban districts, where they have subsequently recruited teenagers and children into their ranks. Ecuador has also lost control of its state prisons. After the government mass incarcerated cartel members, the cartels began to take over the prisons. Many prison revolts took place, and through threats, bribes, violence and extortion, the cartels divided up the prisons. Today, Ecuadorian prisons serve as logistical centres for the drug trade and are completely under the control of criminal groups. In the last prison riot in Guayaquil, which took place in July 2023, 31 prisoners were murdered, and more than 90 prison guards were taken hostage. In response, Ecuador’s President Lasso declared a state of emergency and a night curfew. At the same time, on 27 July, he dispatched the army to the prisons, which was able to put down the rebellion and free most of the captured guards. The rest of the guards are still in the hands of the prisoners.
The situation is also complicated by the fact that Ecuador is close to early parliamentary and presidential elections on 20 August. The current President, Guillermo Lasso, has refused to stand again, and the favourite for the elections is unclear. It is likely that the cartels will try to influence the results of the elections through intimidation, corruption and manipulation of the results, as the Colombian drug cartels tried to do in the 1980s. However, the Ecuadorian underworld is internally divided, and without broad cooperation, it is unlikely that individual cartels will be able to significantly influence the outcome of the elections. Despite the problems, Ecuador still has functioning institutions, and a complete overrun of the state by the cartels is unlikely in the near future. The South American country, therefore, faces a tough battle between the state and the cartels in the years to come.