Feb 27, 2024 - World

Ecuador's war on gangs may not be sustainable, experts say

Four military officers dressed fully in fatigues stand below rows of young soccer players in blue jerseys at a futbol stadium

Military guards at a friendly match in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Feb. 17. Photo: Franklin Jacome/Agencia South Press via Getty Images

Authorities in Ecuador have arrested more than 10,000 people and seized record amounts of cocaine since launching an all-out offensive against criminal groups in January, but experts worry the crackdown is not sustainable over the long term.

The big picture: Violence in the South American nation has soared in the past few years, driven by criminal gangs with international links, lured by global cocaine demand. President Daniel Noboa just months after taking office declared an internal armed conflict and a state of emergency that allowed him to mobilize more military and police.

What they're saying: "In the short term we've seen positive consequences to this approach" of a state of emergency and troop mobilization, Will Freeman, fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells Axios Latino. Freeman says homicides fell from 27 to 11 per day by the end of January.

  • "But there's a couple things that make it not so sustainable and which are cause for concern," he adds, including that the "issue of cocaine demand" abroad is beyond Noboa's power.

Another major problem is that Ecuador's economy is barely chugging along and the deployment of security forces is expensive.

  • Noboa is trying to work around the financial challenge with a bill to levy more taxes, some of which would hit regular Ecuadorians hard. Lawmakers rejected it initially but are debating another similar draft bill.
  • "Some might be willing to endure [paying more taxes] if the funds go to fighting crime," says Beatriz García, a Guayaquil-based analyst and associate for the Wilson Center.
  • "But while there is a sense of uneasy calm at the moment, it could still be that criminal groups start pushing back much more strongly and things and Ecuadorians' feelings change," she adds.

Zoom out: The security situation is being felt regionally and in the U.S., where southern border encounters with Ecuadorians have increased 300%.

  • Noboa's strengthening of regional alliances to aid his security measures is smart, García says.
  • That includes an agreement, signed in October, for U.S. troops to train their Ecuadorian counterparts.
  • The U.S. also provided Ecuador with bulletproof vests, ambulances and other equipment in January.
  • Last month, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia announced the creation of the Red Andina de Seguridad 24/7, a cooperation agreement that will facilitate a shared biometric data bank of suspects, regular high-level meetings and a communication network to immediately exchange information on criminal groups.

What to watch: Noboa plans a referendum to ask voters whether the country should end its ban on extraditions, add more military checkpoints on roads leading to prisons, increase prison sentences for certain crimes and facilitate the seizure of illicitly obtained assets.

  • The referendum is scheduled for April 21.
  • This month a judge ordered an investigation into claims by 10 families who said their imprisoned loved ones showed signs of being beaten and were denied access to medicines.
  • In response to the judge's order, Noboa said that actions taken under the state of emergency are "to protect the rights of the majority" of Ecuadorians.

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