Ecuador is plunged into an unprecedented crisis: in just five years, the homicide rate grew by 40%. The recent wave of violence, with prisons taken and criminals escaping, led President Noboa to declare a state of emergency. Is the country on the verge of an authoritarian turn? Democratic stability hangs by a thread.

The figure in itself is alarming and terrifying. In five years, the homicide rate in Ecuador grew around 40 percent, according to data provided by the Police of that country. To cite just one example: in 2018 around 5.8 citizens were murdered per 100 thousand inhabitants; Today, that same measurement exceeds 44.4 murders per 100 thousand inhabitants.

All of this explains, in part, the social and public order upheaval unleashed in this country in the first days of 2024. Prisoners took over the prisons, kidnapped guards and murdered at least two officials; The dangerous boss Fabricio Colón Pico, alias Fito, escaped and cities like Guayaquil, Quito, Ibarra, among others, were subject to shootings in public places and even the takeover of a television channel.

Despite the cruelty, and the number of deaths yet to be calculated, the greatest risk in Ecuador is the instability of the institutions and, therefore, democracy. President Daniel Noboa, surrounded by his opponents and a citizenry that demands a strong hand, is gradually approaching the construction of a totalitarian government.

The roots of chaos in Ecuador

The reasons why the country reached such a state are many. First, the then president Rafael Correa signed an amnesty in 2011 with the criminal group Los Choneros, in a kind of social relief to reduce growing crime. This opened the door for more bands to join, and with it, representation within the community.

Today there are 23 urban crime gangs, organizations, recognized by the national government. Added to this is the rise of drug trafficking and the operation on its Pacific coasts of foreign groups, such as dissidents of the Colombian FARC and emissaries of Mexican cartels, according to what scholars of this phenomenon such as retired colonel Mario Pazmiño have stated.

Armed Forces and National Police intervene in the El Turi Social Rehabilitation Center. Photo: FFAAECUADOR.

“There are 35 deprivation of liberty centers where the 23 terrorist organizations consolidate their domains in each pavilion and from where criminal governance is exercised. Control in each prison facility is exercised by criminal organizations, thanks to the level of penetration and corruption in the state institutions in charge of its administration,» said Colonel Pazmiño in an opinion column published on the portal Transparent Equator.

According to the senior official, “terrorist organizations operate under the modality of a holding company with a subdivision of jobs, tasks, responsibilities and employment sectors. The criminal structure is responsible for training and equipping them to carry out their activities or missions of attacking the community or state facilities, sowing social terror.”

Murder that raised a spiral of violence

The presidential candidate (and also journalist) Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated on August 9 while he was holding a campaign event in the city of Quito. Armed men, of Colombian nationality, attacked him with shots in the middle of a crowd.

It was the first in several decades that organized crime dared to touch a candidate in the middle of a public square. Something in Ecuador had changed. Intelligence files indicate that the crime was planned from prisons.

“Criminal structures have found a space for survival and a center of operations and logistics from prisons. “When this is structured and strengthened, they have the ability to break the limits and borders that the condition of being deprived of liberty requires and they manage to control the territory,” he told the media outlet.WEEK former presidential candidate Christian Zurita.

Before Villavicencio, Ecuadorian criminal gangs had already shown what they could do. On January 21, 2023, Julio César Farachio, candidate for Mayor of Salinas, was murdered; On February 5, the victim was Ómar Menéndez, candidate for Mayor of the city of Puerto López; On July 16, Rider Sánchez, candidate for the National Assembly, was shot; On July 23, the crime of Agustín Intriago, mayor of Manta, occurred.

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All these murders show that Ecuadorian gangs not only seek power in the streets and control of illegality, they now want political power and the entire state.

This whole situation, added to what happened in these first days of January, led President Noboa, of the center-right current, to decree a state of emergency.

What’s coming now?

The internal commotion that gave way to the declaration of a state of emergency allowed the Ecuadorian government to mobilize the Armed Forces in urban centers. It also includes a curfew to limit gatherings. The State begins to regulate part of the freedoms of Ecuadorians.

President Noboa announced a tough line on prison policy, even suggesting sending 1,500 Colombian prisoners to the border with that country. In this passage between both countries, part of the violence that the country is experiencing today was born.

FARC dissidents slipped through the Colombian border and created a drug trafficking emporium in the middle of the jungle. Three journalists who began investigating this phenomenon were murdered in 2018.

With this context, and El Salvador’s experience with Nayib Bukele, it points to a similar scenario in Ecuador.


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