Why Ecuador’s Security Crisis Demands Global Action

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From January 22 to February 1, 2024, Ecuador received visits by the commander of the United States Southern Command, the deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Counternarcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the U.S. special presidential advisor for the Americas, and mayors of a number of European port cities acutely affected by drug trafficking, such as Antwerp, Hamburg, and Rotterdam. This came after an eruption of violence in Ecuador in early January. Ecuador’s president, Daniel Noboa, has also sought and received domestic support via a security referendum for his mano dura approach to combating crime. Following the authors’ visit to the country, however, it is evident that without long-term domestic reforms, the international support pledged during these high-level visits and all subsequent efforts will not yield the permanent results the country needs.

It All Starts with Ecuador

To instill confidence domestically and within the international community, Ecuador must be committed to rebuilding its institutions, making them efficient, and insulating them from the influence and corrosion of criminal organizations seeking to infiltrate them. Through extensive interviews with security experts in the country, the authors identified five areas of improvement in every stage of the judicial process where Ecuador can achieve lasting impact and simultaneously build international partners’ confidence in the country.

First, Ecuador should rebuild its intelligence institutions that were gutted during the Moreno administration. The lack of continuity in the leadership and structure of the intelligence services and scant coordination among them have allowed criminal organizations to exert control over port cities and border crossings. Within the United States, the Department of Homeland Security, including Customs and Border Patrol, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a host of other entities work together to identify the movement of illegal drugs throughout the country. By contrast, Ecuador’s institutional framework lacks the same level of interagency coordination. In the country’s ports, for example, the national police scan exiting cargo (where cocaine has been most frequently found), whereas the National Customs Service of Ecuador (SENAE) is responsible for cargo entering the country. By investing in intelligence and undertaking structural reform to synchronize law enforcement work, Ecuador could build a consolidated intelligence agency that operates within strong legal safeguards and guard the country against the abuses seen in the past, such as spying on government critics and members of the opposition. Creating regulatory frameworks for citizen privacy protections, such as creating a criminal intelligence surveillance court akin to the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court could be a first step. 

Secondly, one of the signature elements of President Noboa’s Plan Phoenix, a plan whose substance is still to be fully unveiled, was the declaration of a state of “internal armed conflict,” which allowed the armed forces to assume a larger role in citizen security. In April 2024, Ecuadoreans offered overwhelming support for an initiative to amend the constitution and allow the armed forces to “offer complementary support to the functions of the National Police to counter organized crime” (author’s translation), making their involvement in citizen security more permanent. Recent investigations into human rights abuses by the armed forces, both in prisons and on the streets, along with record-low morale (an estimated 7 percent of the total active-duty servicemembers have sought to leave the armed forces this year alone, representing a 410 percent year-on-year increase), further complicate this approach. Given the doctrine and mission of the armed forces, a more sustainable approach is to reorganize the national police and facilitate cooperation between departments. Higher wages and an effort to protect personnel from the threats of organized crime are also crucial.

Following an arrest, Ecuador’s shambolic judicial system allows those involved in drug-trafficking cases to serve reduced sentences or simply walk free due to technicalities in the law. A study by the Ecuadorian Organized Crime Observatory (OECO) shows that out of the 6,425 narcotrafficking investigations opened between 2019 and 2022 in the country, only 967 resulted in a conviction. Furthermore, 85 percent of those convictions were reached through abbreviated proceedings, during which a defendant pleads guilty in return for a reduced sentence. OECO also found that half of these defendants received the minimum sentence of 20 to 24 months. In many instances, these sentences are served at the same time as the legal process takes place (which often takes about 21 months).

To complicate the landscape, several new investigations by the attorney general’s office into public officials allegedly working with drug-trafficking gangs have reiterated the staggering levels of collusion between criminal organizations and the judicial system. Since the opening of Caso Metastasis in December 2023, the biggest case against corruption and drug trafficking in Ecuador’s history, 52 public servants have come under investigation for allegedly working with criminal gangs and over 30 justice department officials have been arrested. Subsequent investigations, including Caso Purga in March 2024 and Caso Nene in June 2024, have increased confidence in Ecuador’s ability to address these issues, but Attorney General Diana Salazar’s life has been threatened by criminal actors on multiple occasions, forcing her to take a leave of absence.

Security experts interviewed for this project also point to money laundering as an area that requires significant reform. Around $3.5 billion was laundered through Ecuador’s financial system in 2021, but investigations into money laundering have not kept pace with the increase in criminal activity. From 2020 to 2022, only 2 of 150 money-laundering cases led to a conviction, with the average sentence amounting to only five and a half years, issues that many blame on corruption and lack of know-how in the judicial system.

Lastly, if defendants are convicted, the reality of a prison sentence may prove deadly for the average person or amount to a luxurious vacation for narcotraffickers. Recent revelations suggest that gang leaders have been able to walk out of prison or live a practically unchanged life in some of the most secure prison complexes in Ecuador. President Noboa announced this January that his administration would build two new high-security prisons, designed to emulate high-security penitentiaries in the hemisphere. According to recent announcements, the prison in Santa Elena will be able to hold 736 inmates, a tiny contribution in light of Ecuador’s total prison population, estimated to be above 30,000 inmates. While rebuilding prison infrastructure is important, a systematic approach to rooting out and staving off corruption in the government, as well as a comprehensive judicial overhaul, is most imperative. The status quo—asking the armed forces to secure prisons—is likely unsustainable in the long run.

Regional Cooperation

In recent years, Latin American countries have sought to experiment with alternative approaches to combatting crime and drug trafficking. Some of these efforts have even had spillover effects for Ecuador. In Colombia, for instance, President Gustavo Petro’s security policies prioritizing the root causes of crime and utilizing peace agreements with criminal groups have coincided with an explosion of coca cultivation and cocaine production in the country. As only a minor producer of coca, Ecuador receives most of its cocaine through the porous border with Colombia. During field research, CSIS personnel heard about informal border crossings as well as border towns in Ecuador whose political leadership has been co-opted into the drug trade. One town experienced “strategic power blackouts” reportedly coordinated with political figures, enabling the movement of illicit goods without prying eyes. One of the few examples of cross-border cooperation between Colombia and Ecuador was their coordination to break up a criminal organization responsible for sending up to five tons of cocaine per month (amounting to $2 billion in profits annually) to the United States and Europe.

To Ecuador’s south, Peru is the world’s second-largest coca cultivator, with 95,008 hectares of land dedicated to coca cultivation in 2022. Political instability and corruption scandals led Peru to seize 4.4 percent less cocaine in 2022 compared to 2021. As with Colombia, Ecuador maintains two official border crossings with Peru, but there are reportedly over 48 unauthorized border crossings. In addition to being a source of cocaine, Peru has emerged as a transit hub for high-powered weapons to filter into Ecuador. As reported by the Australian Institute of International Affairs, “an intelligence report from the Peruvian National Police indicates that in 2023, 391,239 rounds of ammunition were seized in the border region of Tumbes, representing a 13,000 percent increase compared to 2022.” Weapons belonging to the Peruvian army or police have also been found at the scenes of notable crimes, such as the 2023 assassination of Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio. Indeed, as part of this investigation, Peru arrested 18 suspects in an arms-trafficking crackdown in March 2024. Amid the increasing cross-border activity, it should come as no surprise that important Ecuadorian gangs, such as Los Tiguerones, have expanded activities into Lima since 2022.

Lastly, there is evidence that rivalries among Mexican cartels are replicating in Ecuador via local gangs as proxies, making cooperation with Mexico of paramount importance. Unfortunately, what little assistance Mexico has provided to Ecuador in the past has broken down amid broader diplomatic friction stemming from the Noboa administration’s decision to raid Mexico’s embassy in Quito in April 2024. The raid, which sought to capture former vice president Jorge Glas after he was convicted of corruption, led to a major rupture in Mexico’s diplomatic relations with Ecuador. While Ecuador direly needs Mexico’s help to combat narcotrafficking across borders, its actions have hindered the already slim prospect for cooperation. Further international collaboration and intelligence sharing is needed among Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico—both mimicking and surpassing the cross-border collaboration seen among criminal groups.

Cooperation with the United States

Amid the rupture in cooperation with Mexico, the United States’ cooperation with Ecuador presents it with a unique opportunity. The United States is Ecuador’s top security partner, and U.S. security assistance to Ecuador was swift after the most recent attacks by criminal gangs in Guayaquil. After high-level visits by U.S. government officials, Washington announced that it would provide “critical” security equipment and a comprehensive aid package priced around $93.4 million. The United States also donated a C-130H Hercules (used to conduct high-seas drug interdictions) and “six Navistar trucks, boat motors, technology equipment, and training,” (authors’ translation) worth an estimated $2.4 million. The United States’ rapid response in offering Ecuador material support and military training has led observers to speculate about a “Plan Ecuador,” an aid package akin to the multibillion dollar Plan Colombia implemented throughout the 2000s.

During the authors’ field research in Ecuador, it was evident that military and police equipment is crucial in the fight against organized crime. However, many experts argue that without a security strategy seeking sustainable results, the impact of reactionary security assistance will be limited. In interviews and in an off-the-record roundtable, experts concurred that the United States is well positioned to share best practices and expert advisory services to rebuild Ecuador’s institutions—particularly the judiciary.

Pillar Two of the Merida Initiative, a security cooperation plan through which the United States helped Mexico overhaul its entire judicial system, could serve as a blueprint for U.S. technical assistance. The Merida Initiative’s comprehensive approach to professionalizing the judicial system addresses key inefficiencies by providing “forensic lab training, certification, accreditation, and equipment, law school seminars for professors and students.” This is particularly impactful as the country’s firearms investigations, for example, depend on just eight microscopes for bullet tracing and only 247 forensic technicians. In addition to forensics training, the Merida-like initiative for Quito could provide “courtroom IT equipment packages essential for oral trials and training for prosecutors, investigators, and other justice sector personnel,” essential in the aftermath of the corruption cases and the dismissal of judiciary personnel. Lastly, “instructor development for federal and state police academies, and courses on leadership and supervision, basic police skills, and specialized investigative skills,” could allow for the decoupling of the federal police and the military as the police force becomes more professionalized. Although implementation would have to be adjusted, trainings should also be offered to SENAE as well as the Financial and Economic Analysis Unit (UAFE), both critical entities at the forefront of the fight against organized crime.

Cooperation with Europe

Europe has increasingly become a top destination for much of the cocaine that transits Ecuador. For years, major European ports, such as Algeciras, Antwerp, Hamburg, Rotterdam, and Valencia, have seized record tonnage of cocaine, much of which transits through commercial shipping containers originating in Ecuador. Ecuador’s large amounts of exports of perishable items such as bananas, shrimp, and cut flowers provide drug trafficking organizations with ample avenues to move illicit goods.

European criminal organizations have partnered with local Ecuadorean gangs to move drugs and launder proceeds back to Ecuador. While conducting field work, the authors frequently heard about Albanian criminal organizations and their partnerships with Ecuadorean gangs. In particular, these organizations appear to provide the muscle behind several local drug gangs, as well as the façade to launder criminal proceeds. Working through extended family ties, Albanian “clans” control luxury resort properties on Ecuador’s coast and in its Amazon region, through which criminal proceeds can be laundered.

The most recent visit by several mayors of European port cities acutely affected by drug trafficking led to the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the National Customs Service of Ecuador and the General Administration of Customs and Taxes of Belgium. More recently, under Belgium’s leadership of the rotating EU presidency, the country has pushed the European Ports Alliance, a partnership meant to bring together stakeholders and increase funding for technology-led solutions. The alliance includes €200 million for equipment upgrades and more efficient container scanning, as well as the protection of port staff, information, and processes. While a good start, the alliance appears geared toward security in the European Union only, as opposed to setting aside funds to assist countries such as Ecuador, where European demand is driving a compounding security crisis.

Beyond the exchange of information and technology, and a recognition of the shared nature of this problem, it is unclear if any concrete steps resulted from this meeting to drive greater cooperation with Ecuador. The European Union must do a better job of cooperating with Ecuador to combat financial crimes and prevent drug proceeds from redounding to Ecuador’s criminal organizations.


For Ecuador to stand apart as a success story in its fight against organized crime, it desperately needs the support of the international community, and in particular the United States and Europe. Yet, given recent revelations about Ecuador’s wide-reaching corruption, the small Andean country first needs to take substantial actions to demonstrate its commitment to democratic institutions and the rule of law. Should President Noboa stay in power, his commitment to these reforms would signal a willingness to ensure that his security strategy outlasts his presidency, thus facilitating a long-term partnership with the United States. Combining the multifaceted approach presented here—strengthening intelligence institutions, reforming the judicial system, addressing money laundering, and enhancing prison infrastructure—with international cooperation lays a strong foundation for progress. The road ahead will be challenging, but with resilience and strategic partnerships, Ecuador could once again revert to being the region’s “island of peace.”

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 research associate with the Americas Program at CSIS.