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How corruption and gang warfare transformed Ecuador

Ecuadorians have found themselves in the middle of a bloody turf war as rival criminal organizations mete out brutal and often public shows of violence, battling to control drug trafficking routes that cross the Andean nation.

Reports of dismemberments, prison riots, bombings and the killing of journalists, judges and mayors have dominated the headlines, and many Ecuadorians are opting to leave the country – the country’s civil registry even extended its hours this year as it reported rising demand for passports and identity cards.

In December 2022, US Customs and Border Patrol encountered more than 16,000 Ecuadorians at the US southern border – 24 times the number than the same month a year before.

But the high-profile assassination on Wednesday of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio could be a turning point for the country that has so far struggled to control the bloodshed.

“For years and the Ecuadorian authorities have failed to respond (to the security crisis) and this should be the wake up call to finally take action to protect the population – given this rise of organized crime groups that are terrorizing large parts of Ecuador,” he added.

Drug fueled violence

Ecuador, home to the Galapagos islands and a tourist-friendly dollar economy, was once known as an “island of peace,” nestled between two of the world’s largest narcotics producers, Peru and Colombia.

But Ecuador’s deep ports have made it a key transit point for drugs making its way to consumers in the US and Europe. And its dollarized economy also makes it a strategic location for traffickers seeking to launder money.

The sharp uptick of violence that has transformed Ecuador into one of the most dangerous countries in the region coincides with a cocaine boom.

Global production levels are expected to hit historic levels this year, said Laura Lizarazo, a senior analyst for the Andean region at political risk consultancy Control Risks. “The market is flooded with cocaine and criminal organizations are adapting to explore this over-production,” she said.

Economic insecurity has helped drive some Ecuadorians to crime, and others to flee the country. Over half Ecuador’s workforce is in the informal economy, meaning that millions of people do not have a contract and benefit packages to rely on in hard times – a situation that was further exacerbated by the pandemic.

Floundering authorities

Security and state forces have been badly unprepared for the rise of criminal groups in the country. “Some state forces lack proper training equipment and strategy to effectively address threat, they also have limited state capacity to effectively charge and prosecute criminal organizations,” Lizarazo said.

Ecuador’s increasingly embattled President Guillermo Lasso has implemented several states of emergencies that have done little to tamp the bloodletting. At one-point, he authorized civilians to use guns, to the consternation of security companies, say critics.

Widespread discontent with the rocketing crime rates tanked Lasso’s popularity this year, paving the way for him to call for snap general elections on August 20, in which he is not a candidate.

Corruption allegations have also swirled around Ecuador’s justice and security system. Last year, the US withdrew visas from high-ranking officers of Ecuadorian state security forces, alleged to be linked to drug trafficking, as well as several judges and lawyers.

Lizarazo said graft has penetrated the police, military, the judiciary and even the executive, meaning the next administration has deep rooted challenges to address once in power.

Looming election

The murder of Villavicencio – a former journalist with a long record of exposing corruption – could impact the presidential vote on August 20, say analysts, as many political hopefuls in the region seek to emulate the mano dura policies of El Salvador’s leader Nayib Bukele.

The race’s frontrunner, former lawmaker Luisa González who is affiliated with the country’s former leftwing President Rafael Correa, has been more measured in her approach to crime, and has called for the judiciary to be reinforced to help with prosecutions.

Other contenders, like businessman and political outsider Jan Topic, are vowing a crackdown; an approach that could prove particularly appealing now.

But all candidates face a disillusioned public. Ecuadorian voters have high levels of apathy, dissatisfaction, and mistrust of the political system, with up to 60% of the population not knowing the names of the candidates, according to experts.

“Now that this awful development (the assassination) has put the presidential campaign,” and security crisis back in the spotlight, Lizarazo said, voters may feel empowered to vote for the most eye-catching approach to end the violence.

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