In the Eye of the Storm: Ecuador’s Compounding Crises

More than any country in Latin America, Ecuador has been caught in the crosshairs of increasing violence related to changing patterns of transnational organized crime. Given Ecuador borders the world’s top producers of coca, Colombia, and Peru, it was only a matter of time before the country began to play an important logistical role in the global cocaine trade. In the past five years alone, Ecuador has evolved from a transit point to a logistical distribution center from which cocaine is sent to various parts of the globe, primarily to Europe and to the United States.

While the external factors driving Ecuador’s violence are evident, the country’s institutional crises, which have lingered and gone unaddressed by several administrations, also explain the current security crisis. Weak political institutions, a dollarized economy, and a free trade agreement with Europe have turned Ecuador into the ideal location for the transshipment of cocaine in South America. This commentary is based on extensive field work and confidential interviews in Quito and Guayaquil, conducted in the month of March 2024, and it illuminates both the endogenous and exogenous factors at play in Ecuador’s spiraling violence.

The Long Reach of Correa’s Legacy

President Rafael Correa’s immigration reform, which sought to make Ecuador a hub of free movement and global citizenry, opened the doors to visa-free travel from a number of countries. This policy proved equally enticing to digital nomads and organized crime bosses alike in the 2010s. Albanians are perhaps the most notable nationality to enter Ecuador in droves during this period, and they now occupy an important role in the country’s transnational organized crime landscape. Albanian gangs, in fact, have been known to use banana and shrimp companies to transport cocaine into Europe. Correa also brokered a trade agreement with the European Union that sought to gradually cut tariffs over 17 years. Importantly, the European Union lowered tariffs on top Ecuadorean exports, such as shrimp, fish, cocoa, cut flowers, and, of course, bananas. The uptick in economic exchange catapulted the Port of Guayaquil into one of the most important on the Pacific Coast of South America—and prime real estate for transnational criminal organizations.

Domestically, during the same period, Correa’s drive to consolidate political control led him to create the National Intelligence Secretariat (SENAIN), a powerful organization accused of gross privacy abuses against members of civil society and against Correa’s political opponents. To bolster SENAIN’s capabilities, Correa acceded to China’s “safe cities” security initiative, outfitting the organization with surveillance capabilities more often trained on opposition political parties than on combating organized crime. Correa also moved to defang several of the country’s criminal groups, such as the Latin Kings gang, by legalization, turning them into community-based political organizations. The failure of this endeavor, however, laid the ground for a politicization of the security apparatus of the country and the normalization of gang operations.

Undoing Correa’s Legacy (2018–2020)

After Correa’s two terms, his preferred successor and former vice president, Lenín Moreno, was inaugurated. A personal fallout and allegations of domestic spying led Moreno to pivot from Correa’s policies, opening Ecuador to partnership with the United States once again and pragmatically focusing on dismantling some of Correa’s pernicious legacy.

Moreno began by eliminating SENAIN, highlighting its central role in committing political abuses and linking it to the need for greater intelligence on security matters. However, austerity measures in the wake of Correa’s profligate spending meant the eventual elimination of the Ministry of Security Coordination and the Ministry of Justice, the latter of which was substituted by the Secretary of Human Rights and the prison authorities (known as SNAI). While Moreno worked to unravel Correa’s political legacy and bring the country’s finances into order, the need for improvements to intelligence collection, analyses, and synthesis remained unattended, and the state of the country’s penitentiaries languished in an abysmal state.

Austerity measures and budget cuts remained largely in place during the truncated presidency of Guillermo Lasso and have been credited as one of the drivers of massive corruption and infiltration of the prison system and police units. Under the surface, Ecuador’s transnational criminal landscape began to reach its boil point, as the European nexus fortified and the Balkans became a new hub of intercontinental trade (worth $10 billion in 2017), providing Albanian gangs with an opportunity to transport cocaine from one side of the equator to the other.

A Shifting Drug Lord Landscape

Interwoven with Ecuador’s endogenous criminal dynamics are international players from several countries bringing exogenous factors to bear, most notably Mexico’s powerful cartels. At the acme of its power under El Chapo, the Sinaloa Cartel counted many transnational strategic alliances. El Chapo’s capture and subsequent extradition opened international opportunities for domestic rivals like the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) to ally with Ecuador’s criminal organizations and muscle into Ecuador’s criminal underworld. International alliances between Ecuadorean criminal groups and larger transnational criminal organizations witnessed the replication of rivalries playing out elsewhere. Simultaneously, partnerships became more decentralized, focused instead on a system of “service providers” (groups who manage parts of the supply chain without ever owning the drug). During this period, cartels sent small groups of brokers who establish trafficking logistics with groups and then hand it over to the in-country partner. Partly, this explains how Colombian and Mexican groups have an outsized influence on the criminal dynamics in Ecuador while counting very little physical presence in the country.

Remote Visualization

For Mexican cartels, Pacific ports play a key role in the operations logistics of illicit goods trafficking. Artisanal fishermen in Ecuador’s coastal cities were co-opted to provide logistical assistance to criminal groups engaged in drug trafficking—all while leveraging fuel subsidies established during the Correa administration. In 2022, officials estimated that in the department of Esmeraldas, around 72 percent of the gasoline for artisanal fishing that the government provides was sold to criminal networks.

For European groups, the Pacific ports have also become key in the surge in the demand for cocaine in the continent, especially as Colombia’s port security has been tightened. Given that most of this cocaine flow happens via commercial shipping networks, Albanian mafia groups, such as Azemi and Rexhepi gangs, have become dominant brokers in cocaine trafficking to Europe by liaising with local gangs in Ecuador.

State of Violence (2020–2024)

The intensity of Ecuador’s criminal rivalries has manifested most clearly in the past three years. In 2019, Ecuador was considered one of the safest countries in Latin America with a homicide rate of 6.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, but what had been called an “island of peace” quickly became a nightmare in recent years, with the discovery of dismembered bodies and car bombings taking place periodically. In towns like Durán, contested by several gangs and adjacent to the ports of Guayaquil, the homicide rate averaged 145.43 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2023 and was ranked the most violent city in the world.

An uptick in homicides began to take place in 2016 but skyrocketed in 2020 as the country suffered the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic. The restriction of movement left many struggling to make ends meet as businesses closed and laid off workers. The economic diagnosis of Ecuador prior to the pandemic was already bleak. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Ecuador’s economy did not experience any growth in 2019, and its GDP actually contracted by 7.8 percent in 2020. The pandemic exacerbated levels of poverty, and by mid-2023, 4.9 million Ecuadoreans lived in acute poverty (with an income of less than $3 a day, and 1.9 million lived in extreme poverty (with an income of less than $1.60 a day).

The recruitment model of gangs has not been thoroughly documented, but in off-the-record interviews with security experts in the country, the authors uncovered that gangs like Los Choneros and Los Lobos have primarily recruited underprivileged youth, in particular fishermen, in the coastal regions of Esmeraldas, Guayas, and Manabí. In this context, gangs offer underprivileged sectors of the population with unmatched salaries that they could not refuse. Former leader of the powerful gang Los Choneros, Junior Roldán, alias “JR,” made use of the “benevolent cartel” model to win the hearts and minds of the populations where his criminal enterprise operates.

In addition to accelerated recruitment, two major factors seemed to have been pivotal in Ecuador’s recent spike in violence: fights over territorial control and the rise of arms trafficking into the country.

Ecuadorean gangs, unlike cartels, are prison-based organizations whose logistical centers are penitentiaries. From the penitentiaries, where each section of the prison is separated and controlled by each of the major gangs, leaders of these criminal groups direct drug trafficking and targeted killings and rule organized crime on the streets. Competition for control of the prisons has led to some of the highest homicide rates in Ecuador. A 2022 study revealed that if Ecuador's prison system were a city, it would be, after Guayaquil, the second-most-violent city in the country. These acts of violence are not isolated events; they instead reflect the struggle for territorial control inside and outside the prisons. 

The waves of violence experienced in Ecuador typically occur after the death of powerful gang leaders, which reflects the subsequent fight over territorial control. For example, the death of the leader of Los Choneros, Jorge Luis Zambrano (alias “Rasquiña”) in 2021 led to the split of the gang into two factions, Las Águilas (led by “JR”) and Los Fatales (led by José Adolfo Macías, alias “Fito”), and ignited a wave of violence in Ecuador’s prisons. While Los Choneros remains a powerful criminal faction in Ecuador, Los Lobos, counting the support Los Tiguerones and Los Chone Killers, has grown to challenge it. Perhaps most notable about the rise of Los Lobos has been the aping of tactics previously unseen in Ecuador but more common in Mexico, such as gruesome scenes of bodies adorned with “narco messages” in public spaces. According to one noted security analyst, the proliferation of smaller groups following the decline of Los Choneros has made Ecuador a kind of “Silicon Valley for organized crime,” where ambitious upstarts understand that innovation has become prized and rewarded.

Buoyed by money and guns provided by transnational criminal organizations, the clashes between gangs in contested territories have become deadlier. From January to June 2023, intentional homicides with firearms increased 897 percent compared to the same period in 2019, and, during in-person interviews, security experts identified arms trafficking coming in from Chile, via Peru, and through the northern border with Colombia as one of the main destabilizing factors in the country. A drastic rise in weapons trafficking can be seen from 2021, when Ecuadorean authorities seized 1,299 cartridges and 155 magazines for different types of weapons, to 2024. This year, the armed forces had seized 84,164 cartridges, 996 magazines, and over 1,500 firearms in the span of 22 days alone, the vast majority of which were found inside prison cells in places like the one in Guayaquil. According to the Ecuadorean Organized Crime Observatory (OECO), around 55 percent of the international firearms seized in Ecuador are manufactured in the United States. Like in many countries in Latin America, assault weapons and automatic guns are illegal in Ecuador.

State of Exception

President Daniel Noboa declared a ninth state of exception in Ecuador after gang members took control of a TV station in the port city of Guayaquil, unleashing a second wave of violence. While he is not the first to use the state of exception to stabilize the country, President Noboa is the first to declare gangs in the country terrorist organizations and use the rhetoric of internal armed conflict to activate the armed forces to intervene in the penitentiaries. This state of internal conflict, and the loosely defined denomination of “terrorist organizations,” has led to 14,765 arrests, but only 280 individuals have been detained on terrorism charges. Ecuadorean authorities have yet to release data on the demographics of those arrested, a strategy for fair and timely trials, and a solution to the country’s long-standing prison crisis.

In Ecuador’s capital of Quito, and even in the port city of Guayaquil, there is little to show for the state of armed conflict. Since President Noboa instituted the state of exception, the armed forces have primarily focused on prisons, working to dismantle the existing infrastructure that allowed some gang members to have luxury villas, firearms, cell phones, and even exotic animals. Taking control of the logistical centers of gang activity is the first step in curtailing violence in the country, but criminal groups have also proven capable of working together against the state when their interests are threatened.

So far, the results of the state of the exception, and the president’s security plan, dubbed “Plan Phoenix,” are mixed. Noboa boasts a 41 percent reduction in homicides, but neither the statistics department nor the national police has provided any data to back up that claim. Without access to third-party data, it is hard to say whether Noboa’s measures are producing the promised results. Last year, for example, the total number of homicides in the country reached 4,300, and in mid-March of this year, the count had already reached 1,199 deaths, not counting those killed in the most recent wave of attacks during Holy Week.

The panorama is even less hopeful when considering the diversification of criminal activity in the country. In Guayaquil, the police registered 724 emergency calls for extortion only in the first quarter of 2024, an increase of 476 percent when comparing the same period in 2023, marking a shift in criminal tactics used by the gangs. Similarly, the police reported 209 confirmed kidnappings during January and February of 2024, compared to the eight cases recorded in the same period of 2023, totaling an increase of 2,512 percent.

Conclusion

President Noboa, who assumed the presidency with 18 months to govern, has been able to rally the Ecuadorean people, and most importantly the military, in a united front against the gangs. Noboa’s popularity has been further reinforced by outstanding popular support of the referendum this April, which vests the armed forces with greater authorities, strengthening the country’s mano dura approach to combating crime. However, with an impending fiscal crisis and a ballooning security budget, Ecuador needs more than a temporary security strategy; it needs a plan to rebuild its institutions, promote prosperity, and work with partners in North America and beyond. If Ecuador and its partners fail to meet the multitude of challenges, the short-term gains through multiple states of emergency will be eviscerated, and Ecuador could revert to a scenario far worse than the status quo ante.

Ryan C. Berg is director of the Americas Program and head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Rubi Bledsoe is the program coordinator with the CSIS Americas Program.