Just five years ago, Ecuador was an anomaly in a region of chaos. Despite being sandwiched between the cocaine-producing heavyweights Colombia and Peru, Ecuador had somehow managed to avoid the large-scale drug violence that plagues much of the Andes region in Latin America, but that has since shifted.
Ecuador now has the fourth highest homicide rate in Latin America—behind only Venezuela, Honduras, and Colombia. The violence has been devastating for residents who are about to head into a presidential election on Sunday. And while Ecuador has historically had high voter turnout rates, with over 80% of the population voting in the 2021, the fear of violence could “reduce turnout,” according to experts. Soldiers have been deployed in the country for the Aug. 20 vote.
Even before the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio who was shot leaving a political rally earlier this month, at least half a dozen local politicians had been assassinated over the last year, according to Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations who visited Ecuador in May.
“In Ecuador, violence right now is very unpredictable. A crime can happen anywhere,” says Freeman. “In the Western Pacific Coast, which has it the worst, I think it's dangerous just to leave your house regardless of [whether] it's Election Day or not.”
Ecuador’s Pacific coast, once known for its beaches and nightlife, has become the scene of a turf war between international gangs competing to control its ports for cocaine trafficking. And in Quito, the largest city and capital of the country, residents are afraid to go out at night.
In 2018, the country had a homicide rate of just 5.84 per 100,000 people, among the lowest in Latin America, according to the World Bank. But by 2022, the homicide rate had more than quadrupled in size to 26.1 per 100,000.
To understand how Ecuador has become so violent in such a short period of time, you need to first understand how Ecuador was able to maintain peace in such a turbulent region over the course of the 2010s.
The FARC deal
Ecuador had traditionally been shielded from the cocaine-related violence that is common in Latin America due to a combination of government policy and a status quo agreement with the armed group most active in drug trafficking in the Andes, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC.)
The FARC was a Marxist guerilla formed in 1961 with the aim of overthrowing the Colombian government. Beginning in the 1990s, it grew increasingly involved in the drug trade in Latin America, and by 2016, it controlled 60% of the world’s most productive coca crops according to The Atlantic. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the Ecuadorian government maintained a cautious but stable relationship with the FARC.
“They had kind of a hands off policy with the FARC, of [if] you don't make violence or trouble for us, we won’t make trouble for you,” says Freeman.
The FARC, too, kept things relatively calm in Ecuador. Though it continued to maintain some drug trafficking operations in the northern part of the country, it spent most of its resources focusing on pre-existing drug trade hubs in Colombia.
All that changed in 2016 when the FARC signed a peace accord with the Colombian government, formally demobilizing a 50-year insurgency and creating a gaping power gap in the cocaine trade.
“Once they were gone, there was just this vacuum,” says Freeman. “I think the reason that you've seen the violence explode is because that vacuum started to lure in different organized crime groups, both Ecuadorian and foreign, who wanted to control this very lucrative trade.”
Over the course of the 2010s, at the same time as the FARC was winding down its operations, Ecuador’s then president, Rafael Correa, was instituting many policies that appeared, on the surface, to dramatically reduce poverty and crime in the country. He increased spending on social services, pouring money into schools, clinics, and public housing.
Under his administration, GDP increased while inequality decreased. A British think-tank, ODI, claimed that Ecuador had the world’s most “inclusive” growth between 2006 and 2011. The poorest 40% of Ecuadorians saw their incomes grow eight times more than the national average, according to The Economist.
But these reforms came with a price. Correa borrowed billions of dollars, putting the country in a vulnerable position where it could not pay its debts.
“His policies brought a lot of people out of poverty for that time, but not necessarily in a durable, long lasting way,” says Freeman.
Correa also increased budgets for police, built mega-prisons that doubled the prison population during his tenure, and kicked out the U.S. military staff that were assisting with anti-narcotic investigations.
“Building these mega prisons may have put a ton of people away and reduced the crime rate for a time, but that's also on the inside of these mega prisons where the Ecuadorian gangs that are terrorizing the country today started to form,” says Freeman.
The combination of high sovereign debt, a growing gang population, and a surging demand for cocaine across the world left Ecuador in a vulnerable state when the FARC disbanded in 2017 .
“All of that combined to get drug trafficking organizations to realize–oh, hey, there's this other country, which we haven't traditionally used, but which actually has sort of all the trappings of a perfect shipping post for our products,” says Freeman.
Gangs from Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia are now all fiercely competing for territorial control over Ecuador’s ports, which are well connected to markets in Europe and Asia.
Ecuador’s democracy hangs in the balance
As Ecuadorians go to the polls this Sunday, the issue of crime will be front of mind. Across Latin America, residents have become increasingly frustrated with democratic institutions which many see as being too weak to solve the violence issue.
In El Salvador, strongman Nayib Bukele was able to dramatically reduce the country’s once extraordinarily high homicide rate by imprisoning over 70,000 people using mass trials. While critics say that Bukele has eroded the country’s rule of law and is destroying its democracy, many in Ecuador and other crime ridden Latin American countries say that they wish they had a Bukele style leader that could take care of the violence.
One major candidate on Ecuador’s ballot is Jan Topić, a former soldier in the French foreign legion who claims to have fought in both Syria and Ukraine. Topić has referred to himself as the “Ecuadorian Bukele” styling himself with a similar haircut and promising to root out gang violence at any cost. According to polling data, he seems to be in a three way tie for second place, giving him a decent chance of making it into Ecuador’s run-off election.
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