Growing drug-gang violence in Ecuador raises question: Could other countries be next?

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As Ecuadorians wage war against almost two dozen gangs that are brazenly turning their once peaceful country into one of the region’s most violent, experts warn that the South American nation’s drug-financed criminal organizations pose one of the gravest security threats Latin America in years.

The cure for the violence, some security and political analysts say, may have to come at the expense of democratic rule and human rights.

In the last month, Ecuador has seen an escalation in violence fueled by gangs’ push to find new drug trafficking routes to the United States and Europe. Police officers have been killed, cars have been bombed and more than 100 guards held hostage as prison riots broke out. One of the most brazen acts was the armed takeover last week of a public television station in Guayaquil during a live broadcast.

On Wednesday, the prosecutor investigating the attack was killed, shot to death while driving his car, the country’s attorney general confirmed. The region is already dealing with extreme inequality, weak institutions and high levels of corruption.

“Our American democracies are not prepared to face this type of situation,” former Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos told the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald. ”What we are seeing in Ecuador is a huge wake up call for the whole region. Similar explosions of violence in other countries cannot be ruled out if serious measures are not taken against this criminal phenomenon.”

In response to the violence, Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa took the unusual step of declaring a state of internal armed conflict and directing the military to pursue 22 criminal gangs he defined as terrorists organizations. Since then, the government has made 15,461 arrests, charging 158 individuals as terrorists and announcing that five gang members have been killed during the police raids.

On Tuesday, Noboa told CNN that Ecuador was the latest frontline of a global problem and that his country needs international help.

“I would gladly accept the cooperation of the United States. We need equipment, we need weapons, we need intelligence and I think this is a global problem. It is not just in Ecuador,” he said.

Experts agree with him.

Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, underpaid police and and security forces are spread thin. What is happening in Ecuador is also taking place, though to a lesser degree, in neighboring Peru, Chile, Honduras and Colombia, Santos said. “Our societies are approaching crucial crossroads where they must decide if they cover the fiscal and political costs of combating these criminal organizations head on,” he added.

The violence is being sparked by drug trafficking and the need for traffickers to find new routes to get cocaine to Europe and the United States. Still, Ecuador stands out, says Ivan Briscoe with the International Crisis Group, because it bucks the previous trend in Latin America.

“The entire trend of organized crime over the last 40 years in Latin America has been to reduce the level of exposure of criminal organizations to a crackdown” by governments, said Briscoe, program director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Ecuador is moving in the other direction and that’s the mystery here.”

Until a few years ago, crime and violence in the country paled in comparison to what was happening next door in Colombia and Peru.

“No history of drug production until quite recently along the Colombian border. No major guerrilla movement. Occasional increases in the murder rate as crime ebbs and flows but nothing too substantial. Ecuador was not a violent country,” Briscoe said. “Political misrule in Ecuador paled in comparison to what you saw next door in Peru, and now Ecuador seems far worse off than Peru and Colombia in terms of basic human security.”

Alberto Ray, director of the Florida-based Risk Awareness Council, said one reason for the crisis is that some of the organized criminal groups in Ecuador hold more power than the state.

“They have become very powerful, and because of this, they manage to control spaces within the national territory, which leaves law enforcement agencies unable to interrupt their operations or even prevent them from expanding,” Ray said.

Because of this, the gangs are able to run lucrative operations, the main one being drug trafficking, while at the same time establishing alliances with other international criminal organizations.

State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller announced last week that senior U.S. officials will travel to Ecuador in coming weeks to explore ways the U.S. can help. He described the level of violence as “appalling.” The officials Todd Robinson, assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement; Kevin Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Gen. Laura Richardson, head of the Pentagon’s U.S. Southern Command.

In addition to the visit, the U.S. will also provide other assistance, Miller said, including increased intelligence sharing.

Mark Feierstein, senior advisor with the Latin America program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the crisis in Ecuador requires “a significant response.” Feierstein was senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs on President Obama’s National Security Council.

“This is why you have the high level delegation going to Ecuador, and we are responding the way we are. The other question is what sort of resources is the administration and even Congress prepared to put in this, because we’ve seen aid cuts over the years, particularly in this region,” he said. “Even the administration, which has been quite bold on the domestic side, has been less bold when it comes to budgeting on the foreign affairs side.”

The implications loom large. Crime and violence not only affect economic growth, but they also contribute to migration flows as an increasing number of Ecuadorians flee poverty and violence for the U.S.-Mexico border.

The criminal gangs operating in Ecuador, have set up alliances with the Mexican drug cartels.

“This is a problem for the security of the citizens that ends up becoming a problem for the defense of the government. Why? Because when these organizations become more powerful than the national armies, the police and the national guards of the countries, the power they yield begins to challenge the stability of the state,” Ray said.

So far, the only successful solution appears to be the adoption of hardline measures, such as the ones President Nayib Bukele implemented in El Salvador. The harsh crackdown on gangs has been criticized abroad for leading to violations of human rights, even though the measures are popular at home.

The success of Bukele’s policy has been hailed by other leaders as a model, given that vast sectors of the population might be willing to tolerate some degree of human-rights abuse in exchange for being able to walk the streets safely at night, Ray said.

Feierstein said even if people are prepared to sacrifice certain elements of democracy for improved security, there is a big difference between the street gangs operating in El Salvador and the drug cartels in Ecuador.

An alternative, he said, may be elements of Plan Colombia, the U.S. diplomatic, military and foreign aid initiative used to combat drug cartels in Colombia.

“It’s important to think about the lessons of Plan Colombia, what worked and what didn’t, and what would be the matrix of success in a place like Ecuador,” said Feierstein. “But there are budgetary trade offs. If we are going to invest in Ecuador, where is it going to come out of?”

In Ecuador, delays in addressing the emerging threat led to the surge in criminal activity that now threatens the nation’s stability. Evan Ellis, research professor of Latin American studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, said that Ecuador’s homicide rate has multiplied eight-fold in the last eight years. That rate places the country with a rate of 46.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest in the region.

For the moment, the measures adopted by Noboa’s government appear to have had some measure of success. The 60-day state of emergency has allowed for the mobilization of the army as part of the campaign to combat gangs, Ellis said.

“The temporary social and political consensus strengthened by the gangs’ latest overreach and the legal conditions created by the Noboa government’s response have arguably created the conditions for the government to achieve significant results against the immediate threat in the coming weeks,” he added.