Security & Strategic Review - February 2024

ECUADOR: Sweeping security reforms proposed following gang uprising

A nationwide criminal uprising on 9 January revealed the ineffectiveness of Ecuadorean security policies of recent years. President Daniel Noboa, who found himself facing a full-blown crisis just two months after he took office in November 2023, has declared that his government is willing to do whatever is necessary to wrest control back from criminal groups. His first step was to declare a state of ‘internal armed conflict’, enabling the total mobilisation of the military across the country. The full-state approach, as well as the government’s plans to build two new supermax prisons this year, suggests that Noboa is finding inspiration in a controversial security blueprint that was devised in El Salvador under Nayib Bukele.

The Noboa administration has framed 9 January as a turning point in the struggle between the authorities and gangs – a ‘9/11 moment’ that triggered a paradigm shift in the country’s security dynamics. Government broadcasts referred to a “new day” beginning on ‘10E’ – the Spanish acronym for 10 January – replete with footage of soldiers patrolling through supermarket aisles to the sound of rapturous applause. It remains to be seen just how far the government intends to go in revising Ecuador’s approach to security, but some changes look set to be long-lasting – not least the role of the armed forces in the fight against organised crime groups. The fact that parties from both sides of Ecuador’s deep political divide are agreeing on the need for much tougher measures suggests that Ecuadorean security policy will not revert to the status quo anytime soon.

This shift owes to deep shock at an unprecedented display of power by criminal gangs. Several incidents stood out over days of widespread violence. Perhaps the most dramatic was the storming of the studios of the TC television channel in the port city of Guayaquil by 13 gunmen. In scenes which unfolded on live television, staff were seen begging for their lives as they were held at gunpoint. No message was broadcast on air by the attackers, possibly due to the prompt arrival of the police.

This televised attack came on the same day that coordinated riots took place at seven prisons around the country, with 178 members of prison staff taken hostage by inmates and held for four days. Meanwhile, 33 inmates escaped in a mass breakout from a prison in the highland city of Riobamba, including Fabricio Colón Pico Sánchez, a high-ranking member of the Los Lobos gang who had been arrested just two days earlier on suspicion of plotting to assassinate Attorney General Diana Salazar. Widespread violence continued around Ecuador in the following days, which saw police officers gunned down in the streets, a deadly arson attack on a nightclub in the Amazonian province of Orellana, several explosions in the capital Quito, and gunmen entering hospitals in Guayaquil.

The catalyst for all of this was President Noboa’s 8 January declaration of a 60-day state of exception which saw a nationwide curfew imposed between 11pm and 5am and the military deployed to assist with policing operations. These emergency measures followed the previous day’s escape of another of Ecuador’s most high-profile prisoners – José Adolfo Macías Villamar, alias ‘Fito’, the leader of the Los Choneros gang, who disappeared from La Roca prison in Guayaquil. The attorney general’s office later said Macías seemed to have been tipped off by prison guards about his imminent transfer to a higher-security facility.

‘Internal armed conflict’

If these criminal attacks were a response to Noboa’s emergency decree, then the armed uprising prompted yet another raising of the stakes by the government. On 9 January Noboa issued a decree declaring “the existence of an internal armed conflict”. This enabled the full mobilisation of the armed forces to tackle organised crime, with the decree ordering the military to “neutralise” 22 “terrorist organisations and non-state belligerent actors”. Those criminal groups include Ecuador’s three most powerful gangs – Los Lobos, Los Choneros, and Los Tiguerones – but also many smaller and less well-known gangs.

In some ways, the official declaration of an “armed conflict” was largely symbolic. But the new rhetoric underlines a change of approach from the government. It effectively establishes the military as the leading actor in domestic security matters, rather than the police, and signals a more heavy-handed approach – both in terms of the heavy weaponry and armoured vehicles being rolled out onto Ecuador’s streets, and in proposals to protect security personnel from allegations of excessive use of force.

These changes were already in the pipeline in the form of a 20-question referendum which was unveiled by Noboa in early January, although the constitutional court (CC) later struck out nine of the questions on the grounds that they are unconstitutional. Noboa’s proposals include permanently authorising the military to confront organised crime groups; lengthening prison sentences; and enabling the extradition of Ecuadoreans. The questions which were struck out by the CC included proposals to reduce security personnel’s vulnerability to prosecution; to allow the armed forces to pre-emptively strike against organised crime; and to require judicial staff to submit to financial audits in order to root out corruption.

At the same time, the government is also seeking to reimpose order in Ecuador’s overcrowded and violent prison system, which has long served as an operational headquarters for the country’s gangs [SSR-23-09]. Noboa said on 11 January that he had ordered the construction of two new maximum-security prisons in the coastal province of Santa Elena and the Amazonian province of Pastaza. These, he said, will have three concentric perimeters, technology to block mobile phone reception, and will have sections for three different categories of inmate – high security, maximum security, and “super maximum security”. Noboa has said that these will be modelled on a controversial ‘mega-prison’ built in El Salvador as part of Nayib Bukele’s crackdown on that country’s longstanding gang problem, which has delivered impressive security dividends but has also sparked allegations of systematic human rights violations.

The prisons plan, the nationwide curfew and the massive deployment of troops suggest that Noboa is serious about imitating Bukele’s security strategy – an idea floated by governments in several other Latin American countries, notably Honduras and Peru, but not to the extent that is now being seen in Ecuador. Whether the strategy could have the same effect in Ecuador that it did in El Salvador is questionable; Ecuador’s gangs are better financed, better armed, and operate across a much larger country than their Central American counterparts. It is also doubtful that Noboa would go anywhere near as far as Bukele regarding mass incarceration, with around 2% of the Salvadorean population behind bars.

That said, arrests have been climbing steadily since Noboa declared the emergency measures. A total of 4,488 arrests were made in the first three weeks of the state of the emergency, according to police figures released on 29 January. That number is expected to climb higher, and may be a factor in Noboa’s ongoing efforts to secure the repatriation of foreign inmates being held in Ecuadorean prisons. Noboa signed a decree on 30 January ordering the prisons authority (SNAI) to begin the repatriation process of foreign prisoners, and has secured unenthusiastic promises of cooperation from the Colombian and Peruvian governments. Colombia looks set to be a key focus in this regard, with Noboa saying that over 1,500 Colombians are currently held in Ecuador’s prison system

Prosecutor assassinated

The prosecutor investigating the attack on the television studio, César Suárez, was assassinated on 17 January. Suárez’s car was sprayed with bullets as he drove away from the attorney general’s office in Guayaquil. It is unclear whether he was targeted in relation to his investigation into the television studio attack. Suárez was also involved in two of Ecuador’s most high-profile corruption investigations – the ‘Metástasis’ case, which is looking into the corruption of the judiciary and law enforcement by criminal organisations; and another probe into corrupt contracts granted at public hospitals during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

Andean security plan

Ecuador’s crisis has prompted a new security accord between the members of the Andean Community (CAN) trade bloc, comprising Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. At an emergency CAN summit in Lima on 21 January, member states approved a new 13-point security plan. The plan establishes round-the-clock intelligence sharing on organised crime activities within each country, in the form of a ‘24/7 Andean Security Network’. This is intended to facilitate rapid responses to cross-border criminal threats, including the international tracking of aircraft believed to be involved in drug trafficking. Other measures include greater coordination on border security; the creation of a regional migration database; joint security training on organised crime; joint action on prisons; and an intensified crackdown on illegal mining.

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