The Rise of Gang Violence and Its Impact on Ecuador’s Safety and Democracy

Ecuador, once considered a safe haven for tourists and locals alike, is now plagued by a wave of violence that threatens the safety of its citizens and the stability of its democracy. This surge in violence can be attributed to the rise of powerful gangs and the country’s geographical location between two major cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru. The increasing production and trafficking of cocaine have not only fueled transnational crime syndicates but also infiltrated local gangs, turning them into formidable enemies.

The murder of Fernando Villavicencio, a candidate in the upcoming presidential election, highlights the gravity of the situation. Villavicencio’s assassination is not an isolated incident but rather part of a disturbing pattern of violence that has gripped the nation. Mayors, politicians, and even security guards have become targets, demonstrating the reach and influence of these gangs. With each targeted killing, a sense of fear and insecurity pervades Ecuadorian society, eroding the trust in their government’s ability to protect them.

The root cause of Ecuador’s descent into violence can be traced back to its proximity to Colombia and Peru, the world’s leading cocaine producers. The illegal drug trade has reached record highs, with cocaine production surging according to the United Nation’s Global Report on Cocaine 2023. While Colombia has made efforts to disrupt the flow of cocaine with the support of the US, the transnational gangs involved in the trade have also become more sophisticated and international in their operations. Mexican drug cartels and criminal groups from the Balkans have established a foothold in South America, using Ecuador’s geography and infrastructure to their advantage.

Ecuador’s good infrastructure and large Pacific ports have made it an attractive hub for drug trafficking, further exacerbating the problem. The country’s security forces, lacking experience in dealing with powerful cartels, were ill-prepared for the infiltration of transnational crime syndicates into local gangs. This infiltration led to a surge of violence within Ecuador’s overcrowded prisons, where rival cartels fought brutal battles for power. Attempts to quell the violence through prisoner transfers only spread the problem nationwide, as gangs continued their criminal enterprises from behind bars.

The violence extends beyond the confines of the prisons, as gang leaders coordinate their operations through smuggled mobile phones. With the financial support and firepower obtained from their international allies, these gangs pose a significant threat to anyone who dares to challenge them. The assassination of Fernando Villavicencio is a stark reminder of the impunity with which these gangs operate, even targeting presidential candidates under police protection at public events.

The rise of gangs and the surge in violence have had a profound impact on Ecuadorian society. The murder rate in the country has quadrupled, eroding the perception of safety and undermining the confidence in the police force. Citizens, once felt safe walking alone at night, now live in fear of becoming victims of gang violence. The very foundations of Ecuador’s democracy are being shaken, as politicians and public servants are targeted, and the ability to hold free and fair elections is jeopardized.

To address this crisis, Ecuador must take decisive action to dismantle these powerful gangs and disrupt the illicit drug trade. It requires international cooperation and support, particularly from countries involved in drug production and trafficking. Strengthening the security forces and investing in law enforcement capabilities is crucial. Equally important is addressing the root causes of gang recruitment, such as poverty and lack of opportunities, by implementing social and economic programs that provide alternatives to a life of crime.

Furthermore, the government must regain the trust of its citizens by ensuring their safety and holding those responsible for acts of violence accountable. This includes not only arresting and prosecuting gang members but also addressing corruption within the justice system and strengthening judicial institutions. Only then can Ecuador begin to restore its reputation as a safe and stable nation.

The rise of gang violence in Ecuador is a grave threat to both the safety of its citizens and the integrity of its democracy. It requires urgent attention and concerted efforts from the government, international partners, and civil society to restore law and order, protect its people, and uphold the principles of democracy that Ecuador holds dear.