Latin American countries have faced decades of violence due to international narcotics cartels. Authorities who spoke with Kyiv Post say Russian, Iranian, and Venezuelan fingerprints can be seen in the escalation of violence in the region, including in Ecuador.
The ongoing surge in Ecuador’s violent crime reached a crescendo on Jan. 9, as the nation’s new president, 36-year-old Daniel Noboa, declared an “internal armed conflict” on 22 narcotics gangs. He argued that they were seeking to destabilize the state in an apparently successful ruse that led to two major gang kingpins fleeing the prisons where they had been housed.
Earlier in the week, masked convicts in the prisons showed impunity to the law as multiple prison guards were taken hostage. In videos subsequently circulated widely in Ecuadorian social media, the kidnappers forced the guards, some at gunpoint, to read statements appealing to Ecuador’s young president to leave the gangs alone.
Despite having cooperated with the gunmens’ demands, videos showed that some of the guards were subsequently killed by gunshot or strangulation. It is estimated that 58 prison guards and 20 prison staff are currently being kept as hostages.
On Jan. 9, after gunmen armed with firearms and explosives took control of a national television station, Noboa said that his country was formally “at war” with 22 drug-tied gangs that have increasingly shaken Ecuador in recent years. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Ecuadorian security forces successfully stormed the television station and arrested the perpetrators. No television staff were killed.
However, the terror in Ecuador did not subside. In the following hours, local social media teemed with videos of civilians being murdered at random by drug cartels seeking to demonstrate the impotence of the government.
Ecuadorian police, joined by national military units, began a national hunt for narcos and those affiliated with the criminal bodies who had sought to take control of the state. Statistics cited in the Ecuadorian press said that dozens of suspected criminals, referred to as “terrorists” by Ecuadorian officials, had been arrested.
Ecuador’s steady descent into the abyss of lawlessness has shocked locals. Last year, during the presidential campaigns that saw Noboa come to power, one of the best-known candidates was shot dead following a rally of his supporters. It is believed that drug cartels were behind the murder due to the candidate’s apparent investigation into their activities.
According to Reuters, between 2016 and the first half of 2023, Ecuador saw a nearly 500 percent increase in the murder rate. The year 2023 concluded with over 8,000 registered murders nationwide. In contrast, the UNHCR reports that, through September 2023, there were 9,614 civilian deaths since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began.
Locals have become increasingly dismayed by recent governments’ perceived inaction in fighting the cartels and the tough approach pursued by Noboa has been perceived positively.
One individual, Maria Teresa, said that though she had not been a Noboa supporter, the president now “has my total support” to fight the criminal bands.
On the night of Jan. 10, Ecuadorian officials, using military personnel and police, conducted large-scale operations across the nation. Videos circulating have shown the rough treatment that suspects have faced when caught by police and mugshots of many would indicate that the prisoners had been in physical altercations.
As a sign of public sentiment, one video of police kicking an arrested man in the head, garnered more than 200,000 likes on social media platform X.
The use of a “firm hand” on the criminals has not drawn any perceptible public ire.
One local, Angel, told Kyiv Post that the police were right to begin using force against alleged criminals, saying: “If you see a strange guy out at night: Shoot him. If you see a guy who looks like a criminal: Shoot him. If you catch a guy robbing: Give him a bullet. It is the only way.”
A former senior Ecuadorian official, who worked for the national intelligence service, told Kyiv Post that violent crime in the country was expected to grow as Ecuador has been changing from being a transport point for narcotics, to also being a producer of drugs, with the serious risk that the country could become like “Colombia of the 1980s.”
Colombia in the 1980s was dominated by the Medellin Cartel, under Pablo Escobar, which challenged the state’s ability to function properly until Escobar was finally killed in a raid, organized by the US government, in 1993. Since that time, Colombia has transformed itself into a major business hub and now has a murder rate lower than Ecuador’s (26 per 100,000 vs Ecuador’s 45).
Links to international crime rings
In Kyiv Post’s earlier interview with Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, the statesman had indicated that the globe’s non-democratic forces were in cahoots to buy, transport, and sell narcotics and deal in other illegal businesses, globally. He cited organizations like the then-Wagner Group as having been “instrumental in the narcotics trade.” Lopez specifically cited China, Russia, Iran, Belarus, Nicaragua, and Cuba as having interests in international crime rings.
Since 2020, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has been under a US government indictment for “narco-terrorism, conspiracy to import cocaine, possession of machine guns and destructive devices, and conspiracy to possess machine guns and destructive devices.”
Ecuadorian intelligence officials indicated to Kyiv Post that Iranian as well as Venezuelan nationals are involved in the nation’s drug trade. Both Iran and Venezuela are close allies of the Russian government.
Emanuele Ottolenghi, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy (FDD) and expert on the role of Iran, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations in Latin America affirmed to Kyiv Post that "in terms of drugs and LatAm, Hezbollah remains deeply enmeshed in servicing the cartels through money laundering.”
Ecuador long ranked as a top retirement destination for foreigners attracted to the quiet and inexpensive capital of Quito, built in the 1500s by the Spanish colonists, that has a year-around temperature of 15C (59 F). Annually, Ecuador attracted large sums of tourists who visited the sunny beaches of the Galapagos Islands. However, the rapid rise of crime, especially in coastal cities, has sparked concern among some expats that the country has been “spiraling out of control”
Tensions remain high in Ecuador and a nighttime curfew has been implemented across the country for at least an initial 60 days. What will happen next is unclear, however President Noboa has promised that “we are at war and I will not give in.”
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