Jan 10, 2024 - World

Behind Ecuador's sudden security crisis

The backs of the heads of two Ecudorian security forces are shown while people are shown walking past gates in a subway in Quito.

Security forces patrol a metro station in Quito on Wednesday. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

The quick escalation of violence in Ecuador, where armed men broke into a TV station days after the country's most notorious criminal escaped from prison, points to a complex and prolonged conflict that's been slowly brewing.

State of play: President Daniel Noboa, who took office in November, declared an internal armed conflict on Tuesday and ordered the mobilization of military and police to "neutralize" criminals. Citizens were told to stay home and classes were suspended.

  • A day earlier, Noboa declared a state of emergency after the prison break of notorious criminal Adolfo Macías, who is still at large.

Context: Violence and insecurity have been growing in Ecuador for the past few years. They're rooted in overrun prisons, which the two biggest gangs — rivals Los Lobos and Los Choneros, which is led by Macías — control and use as command centers, says Beatriz García, a Guayaquil-based analyst and associate for the Wilson Center.

  • Prison riots are frequent, as are shootings in port cities, attacks against politicians, and accusations of corruption from prison wardens and judges.
  • Authorities have responded with intermittent states of emergency since 2021, but gangs have grown bolder, "supported by Mexican cartels who are sharing their know-how and financing them," García adds.

Noboa, who campaigned partly on fighting crime, announced shortly before taking office his "Plan Fénix," which includes measures such as launching extraditions of Ecuadorian crime suspects, expediting asset seizures, justice reforms for sentencing, measures for job creation to tackle gang recruitment and building new prisons.

  • The plan hasn't fully been put into motion, as some measures require approval from courts and others will be decided in a referendum Noboa was planning for in the Spring.
  • Criminal groups likely carried out the weekend's prison break and this week's kidnappings and storming of a TV station to send a message to Noboa, says García.

Between the lines: Ecuador for years was an oasis from major crime as other Latin American nations saw waves of violence from insurgent groups and drug-trafficking cartels.

  • That means it has "little experience with this level of violence, so its security services and its prison systems had been really unprepared for such a fight," says Benjamin Gedan, director of the Wilson Center's Latin America program.
  • The crux is that "these aren't problems that you can quickly solve," he adds, so "it's hard to believe Ecuador is not at the beginning of a very long and drawn-out cycle."

What to watch: Experts say nobody expected such a massive security threat to come so fast into Noboa's term, but they add that the government's response so far has wide public support.

  • A major issue is that Noboa's term, which he won in a special election, ends in May 2025, though he can run for re-election. "The biggest enemy next to the criminal gangs is time," says García.
  • Gedan says it'll be important to watch whether expectations and pressure lead Noboa's administration to take more of a hardline approach, like those implemented in El Salvador and Honduras, where hundreds of people have been detained without charge under suspicion of gang activity.
  • International organizations say human rights have been left by the wayside in those countries.

The big picture: Migration from Ecuador to the U.S., which increased in the last year, could grow more in response to the crisis, Gedan says.

  • The U.S. has responded by condemning the criminal attacks.
  • "We are committed to supporting Ecuadorians' security & prosperity & bolstering cooperation w/partners to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice," White House White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on X (formerly Twitter) on Wednesday.

Subscribe to Axios Latino to get vital news about Latinos and Latin America, delivered to your inbox on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Go deeper