Why Ecuador’s Law Enforcement Is No Match for Narcos

Guillermo Lasso Alone Cannot Rein in Eight Criminal Groups

National law enforcement is no match for narcos. Violence perpetrated by gangs has skyrocketed in Ecuador since Lasso took office in 2021.

Ecuador's law enforcement is no match for narcos. (Sebastián Díaz)

Lee en español.

On May 3, 2023, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso signed a decree to enable the Armed Forces—alongside the police—to carry out operations against gangs. Lasso, however, leaves office in November 2023. This leaves the door wide open for officers to be prosecuted for killing alleged criminals in raids, as they have been many times before. Lasso’s actions will go nowhere if law enforcement agents do not feel supported politically and legally.

In August 2022, the Court of Chimborazo—a province located in the highlands—sentenced police officer Santiago Olmedo to 13 years in prison for killing two robbers with the argument of “excessive force.” The case is still going through an appeal. Lasso contended: “the government will not leave agents who defend citizens alone.”

These fine words offer little comfort to those who plan to work beyond this year. Such moral backing will almost certainly waver with the next administration, with the result being officers imprisoned by prosecutors hostile to the rule of law.

Violence and terrorism perpetrated by gangs have skyrocketed since Lasso took office in May 2021. This has given rise to Ecuador’s worst insecurity crisis in at least the past three decades. In 2022, the Police registered 4,603 homicides (25 murders per 100,000 inhabitants). Ecuador surpassed Mexico (24.3) and Colombia (23.9), which have been among the five most dangerous countries in the region for decades.

According to the National Police, 2,230 homicides have already occurred in the country from January to May 2023. If the trend continues, the annual figure will reach 6,000 homicides. That equates to 34 per 100,000 inhabitants annually, putting the savagery in Ecuador right up there with the worst 10 nations in the world.

After two years of unsuccessful attempts to address the insecurity crisis, Lasso has via executive decree authorized the military to restore safety. This comes after a failed referendum that sought to extradite narcos and numerous state of emergency declarations. With the military, the government expects to corner and disband eight of the most dangerous cartels that operate in the country. These are the Choneros, the Gangsters, the Fatals, the R7, the Lizards, the Tiguerones, the Wolves, and the Chone Killers. Their names might sound juvenile, but their tactics have crippled Ecuador and changed our way of life, with more and more people afraid to leave their homes.

Lasso’s Last Resort

On April 27, the National Council for Public and State Security issued a statement signaling that terrorist attacks perpetrated by drug cartels are “undermining the structure of the Ecuadorian state, making it a matter of comprehensive security.” According to Ecuadorian legislation, a “matter of comprehensive security” provides the Armed Forces the leeway to deploy officers across the country. The military no longer needs the president to declare a state of emergency to confront cartels.

Via decree, Lasso ratified the military authority to combat drug cartels and granted immunity to military and police agents prosecuted due outcomes or fatalities occurring during antinarco operations. The next president, however, can repeal such a decree. Amid the political crisis of a dissolved Congress and shortened presidential term, law enforcement agents will balk at risking their careers and prison time by defending citizens from criminal attacks.

One of Lasso’s biggest mistakes was appointing inexperienced people to address insecurity. For instance, in August 2022 he appointed former Congressman Diego Ordóñez as the head of the State Security Council despite having no background in the field. Less than a year later, Ordóñez—a corporate lawyer and politician—quit the same day that 30 Tiguerones carried out a massacre, murdering at least nine people in the port of Esmeraldas. This is a coastal city located two hours from the Colombian border.

On April 26, Lasso made a massive change in his cabinet by appointing former Military Chief Wagner Bravo as the head of the State Security Council. As a commander, Bravo fought in the Cenepa War against Peru in the 1990s. He also holds a master’s degree in finance and risk management and another in security and development.

This appointment might be a home run, because the military Special Forces in charge of the antiterrorist operations were led by Bravo when he was in active service. However, with political uncertainty, it is difficult for law enforcement agents to protect citizens.

A Foothold for Organized Crime

Another setback of the Lasso administration has been its lack of control of the prisons. In 2021 and 2022, national prisons witnessed 11 massacres, in which 419 prisoners died. Although the police do constant raids, criminal groups still introduce weapons and drugs into the prisons.

Since some ringleaders are in jail, they also use prisons as their operation centers. Some of the main gangs in the country—the Choneros, the Latin Kings, the Wolves, the Tiguerones, and the Fatals—dominate access to the Coastal Prison that holds the most dangerous prisoners. These gangs now literally rule the prisons and dictate to police who can enter.

The absence of governmental efforts to increase control on customs and borders also plays a major role in the insecurity crisis. According to a 2023 UN report, Ecuador has become a transit country for cocaine exports to North America and Europe. By connecting to international narcotrafficking routes, gangs can increase their earnings and scale their operations.

Although drug confiscation increased by 128 percent between 2019 to 2022, antidrug officials can only scan 35 percent of containers at Ecuadorian customs. Customs authorities have announced new drug scanners will operate from June 2023 to inspect all containers.

The Lasso administration is coming to an end, and it can hardly provide long-term solutions in its final six months. The government, nevertheless, can focus on cooperating with the upcoming administration to provide a diagnosis, a roadmap, and clear objectives to tackle the crisis.

According to pollster Click Research, 40.75 percent of Ecuadorians consider insecurity to be the main problem in the country. For this reason, it will be the most important topic for presidential candidates to address in their campaigns.

The upcoming administration—taking office on November 30, 2023—will have the challenge of executing a comprehensive plan to regain control of prisons, disband gangs that engage in international operations, and take back territories dominated by organized crime. The best the Lasso administration can do is collaborate and facilitate a seamless transition.

To effectively face organized crime and tackle the spike in insecurity, authorities must not only provide law enforcement agents larger budgets and more equipment but judicial and political support. It is imperative for law enforcement agents to stop fearing jail time to perform security operations.

Andrés Sebastián Díaz Ponce

Andrés Sebastián holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations from the University of the Americas, Ecuador. He founded Libertario, a Spanish-speaking community that promotes the ideas of liberty in Latin America, and he collaborates with the Ecuadorian liberal think tank Libre Razón. Follow @asdp250.

More Posts

Join us in our mission to foster positive relations between the United States and Latin America through independent journalism.

As we improve our quality and deepen our coverage, we wish to make the Impunity Observer financially sustainable and reader-oriented. In return, we ask that you show your support in the form of subscriptions.

Non-subscribers can read up to six articles per month. Subscribe here.

Leave a Reply