President Guillermo Lasso of Ecuador has declared a state of emergency in the provinces of Guayas, Manabí, and Esmeraldas, as a result of rising crime in the region. Citing the impact of drug trafficking gangs, he has announced the imposition of a curfew and has sent 9,000 police and soldiers to the coastal provinces in an effort to enforce peace and order. Since taking office in 2021, this action means President Lasso has now twice used emergency powers due to violence, after an outbreak of deadly gang-related prison violence in late 2021 prompted similar action.
In a video posted online, Lasso explained his actions by saying “We protect life in every decision we take, in every corner of our country until all those who are violent have surrendered.” He also tweeted that “the streets will feel the weight of our public forces.” Speaking to Reuters about the rise in crime rates in Ecuador, and citing budget cuts and a willingness by judges to release criminals quickly, Luis Cordova of the Universidad Central said: “The justice apparatus and the ability to ensure laws are followed and people are not able to remain in impunity have been deteriorating,” and that “it is evident the justice system has an enormous joint responsibility in this situation.”
Even if the new measures announced by President Lasso stabilize the situation, at best they will prove to be a short-term fix. Increased militarization and the imposition of more stringent measures do not provide a long-term strategy or work towards solving the underlying problems. The prison violence is symptomatic of a broader problem within the justice system, where underinvestment and corruption has hobbled attempts to control the gangs. In addition, the transnational nature of the drug trade and criminal networks complicates enforcement. Any solution requires not just the action of the Ecuadorian government but also cooperation from regional partners and international bodies, which makes solving the problem all the more difficult.
It is clear that gang violence constitutes a growing problem in Ecuador. Previously a role model for the region, with crime rates plummeting between 2010 and 2018, recent years have seen a resurgence of crime. The murder rate of 14 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2021 represented a figure nearly double that of 2020, as Ecuador saw its homicide rate increase faster than every other country in Latin America and the Caribbean. Due to its location between Colombia and Peru, both major cocaine producers, Ecuador is a transit route for drugs, meaning the violence is centered around coastal areas like the port of Guayaquil, where between January and March 2022 almost 300 homicides were reported. 2021 also saw prison violence between gangs become a major issue, with three prison massacres over the course of the year claiming the lives of over 200.
It remains to be seen whether or not the measures imposed by President Lasso will be effective in reducing violent crime along the coast. Regardless, the dimming of what was once a shining light for crime prevention represents a troubling trend for the region, and simply ramping up militarization indefinitely is not a viable solution. Only through long-term investment, reform of the criminal justice system, and cooperation with relevant international partners can Ecuador work towards reducing gang violence and reclaim their position as a Latin American success story.
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