Many picture Ecuador as a peaceful haven of tourism, with its famed Galapagos Islands, picturesque old towns, and scenic mountains. However, this image was majorly disrupted by the spate of gang violence that recently broke out. At least 10 civilians were killed, leading the newly inaugurated president, Daniel Noboa, to declare a state of emergency.
This recent outburst of violence stems from an attempt by Ecuadorian police to move a notorious gang leader from one prison to another; however, upon entering the prison on January 7th, they discovered his cell empty. The gang leader, known as “Fito,” supposedly learnt of the plan to move him from a prison his gang controlled to a smaller prison under government control, and escaped before that could happen. This discovery prompted a major anti-gang and anti-corruption operation, in which more than 30 police officers, members of the judiciary, and prison officials were arrested and accused of aiding gangs both inside and outside of prison. In response, some gangs declared war on Noboa’s government, taking prison guards hostage and murdering and kidnapping other security officials, even taking over a television station live on-air in what became a much-publicized incident.
Gang control over prisons has been a thorn in the side of countless presidential administrations in Ecuador, as its two largest prisons, which hold 10,000 inmates, Penitenciaría del Litoral and the Regional (where Fito escaped from), are entirely controlled by gangs. Consequently, the prisons became hubs of gang activity and violence, with riots and battles breaking out between the various different gangs, often killing hundreds.
President Daniel Noboa, Ecuador’s youngest president, won last October’s election and was sworn in a month later. Coming from a center-right political party, he ran partly on a promise to combat gang violence. However, the election cycle Noboa eventually won was marred by the murder of a candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, an outspoken anti-corruption and anti-gang activist, in an attack that prompted a global outpouring of sympathy and concern.
As part of his plan to combat this recent surge of violence, Noboa has declared a state of emergency for 60 days, which will allow him to send the army into prisons to help regain control. He has also promised to build two new maximum security prisons to relieve overcrowding and has designated over 30 groups as terrorists. Additionally, nearly one thousand people have been arrested, curfews have been implemented in some areas, and the armed forces have been mobilized to help maintain peace and security.
With Noboa taking a forceful tact against gangs, some are comparing his strategy to that of Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador, who has implemented a brutal crackdown on gangs in his country, bringing down violence but also prompting human rights concerns. Some are promoting these comparisons, given that Bukele’s approach has decreased homicide and violent crime rates, arguing that such an approach is necessary given Ecuador’s 900% homicide rate increase from 2017-2023. Yet others decry these comparisons, calling Bukele essentially and effectively a dictator, saying he has consolidated power, reduced checks and balances, and packed the judiciary, among other things. While Noboa has stated his admiration for Bukele, he has also maintained his distance from him, making it clear that he has no intention of reducing or limiting democracy in Ecuador.
Even though Noboa is adamant about confronting Ecuadorian gangs, he will have his work cut out for him. It will be a large undertaking to uproot the gangs’ embedded status quo and large monetary interest in using Ecuador’s geographic location and dead-water ports to facilitate cocaine shipping. Already the lead prosecutor for the invasion of the TV station has been assassinated, demonstrating the continued power of the gangs. Still, many Ecuadorians are hoping he will be successful, and redeliver the peace Ecuador once had.