Trouble in the Land of Bananas and Narcos
Ecuador's Ultra-Rich President Attempts to Tackle Crime
“Aside from your degraded fellow conspirators, there is not a single person in this city who does not fear you, not a single person who does not hate you…From what lust have your eyes, from what crime have your hands, from what outrage has any part of your body ever abstained? Is there any youth that you have ensnared with the enticements of corruption who you have not then gone on to provide with either a weapon to commit crime or a torch to fire his lusts?” - Cicero [In Catilinam I, 13]
On Tuesday, January 9th, shocking footage began to flood the internet. Masked narcotics gangsters, commonly known as “narcos,” had taken over a live TV studio in Ecuador and were holding the staff and presenters hostage. They began to show their guns and explosives to the cameras, and thus the public. It happened during the 2 o’clock hour, when primarily the elderly watch TV, presumably with the knowledge that the young would all see it on TikTok. If you have not yet seen the footage, you should watch it before continuing:
This group of criminals were surrounded and overtaken by the police, but the message to the public is clear: no one is safe from the epidemic of homicides, bombings, and kidnappings that have gripped the nation. Ecuador, once a relatively peaceful country in the northwest corner of South America, has faced a drastic growth in violence over the last five years, with homicides quadrupling. The country, a major transit point between drug growing regions and the Pacific Ocean, has now been occupied by Colombian and Mexican cartels, and the situation is so severe that society itself seems to be collapsing. In late 2023 Ecuador went through a Presidential election featuring multiple assassinations, and the country’s most notorious crime lord, known as Fito, just escaped from prison. Now, Ecuador’s young new President Daniel Noboa, the son of a banana magnate and heir to the country’s largest fortune, has declared an internal conflict and hopes to follow the example of El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele in defeating the cartels with a militarized approach. There is a long, hard road ahead for Daniel Noboa and Ecuador if they are to defeat the forces of crime which are challenging the state itself, and the alternative to victory is perhaps too terrible to imagine.
For most of its history Ecuador has had a low international profile, in keeping with its status as a small and usually peaceful country. It is perhaps most famous for the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin saw some birds he thought were really neat. The country is a moderately large oil producer, but is better known for bananas, the main crop. Ecuador is the world’s largest exporter of bananas while growing only 6% of the world’s banana crop, because a huge percentage of the world’s bananas are grown for domestic consumption in some the most populous countries, especially India. Overall, Ecuador has a pretty conventional history for Latin America, though somewhat more mild, and with the distinction of never having been ruled by an internationally notorious despot. In 2000, following the culmination of a decade-long economic crisis, Ecuador “dollarized,” meaning that US dollars are its sole official currency. The most international notice the country has received in the last 20 years was when leftist President Rafael Correa offered asylum to the persecuted journalist Julian Assange. This resulted in Assange living in Ecuador’s embassy in London for several years until he was expelled after Correa’s successor Lenin Moreno, whom Correa had supported, stripped his asylum status. After his presidential term, Correa moved to his wife’s native Belgium and ultimately faced prosecution in absentia for corruption- incredibly over a mere $6,000- and continues to live in exile, having been granted political asylum in 2022. [Amusingly, his Wikipedia page says he was found guilty of something called “aggravated passive bribery,” a claim which is flagged as “clarification needed.”]
Security in Ecuador began declining several years ago but violence spiraled out of control starting in 2020. A variety of factors destabilized the country, such as poor economic growth, the “pandemic,” prison violence, increased security in Colombia driving gangs across the border, and the challenges of hosting a large population of Venezuelan refugees. Earlier this year, conservative President Guillermo Lasso called early elections. He was close to being impeached by the National Assembly and invoked a never before used constitutional provision that Ecuadorians call “Muerte cruzado” [“mutual death”] which dissolves the National Assembly and calls early elections. This is an interesting innovation in government that I am quite impressed by: following the use of the “mutual death” provision the electoral council has 7 days to schedule an election within 90 days for the remainder of the President’s term and the incumbent President is allowed to stand in that election. In the mean time, he is allowed to govern by decree for six months, which is somewhat longer than it should take to select and inaugurate a new President. This is a recent constitutional change meant to prevent political paralysis such as plagues many countries. It is similar to what would be called a “snap election” in a European parliamentary system, however those countries do not have a strong presidency and parliaments then begin a full term. Further, in those systems at no point does the President rule by decree. Lasso said of his decision,
“Ecuador needs a new political and social pact to allow it to escape from the serious political crisis the country is in, and which unfortunately is getting worse day by day. We need to move forward to a solution that can give hope to Ecuadorian families for a future of well-being and stability.”
What I like about this is that having a Vice President taking power is never satisfactory, a Vice President may plot for a President’s removal if he would inherit the office, and a legislature may remain caught up on a President after he has resigned. This system creates a sort of midway point, to give everyone time to regroup and plan a new path forward, while the President can’t remove the legislature without removing himself.
Lasso ultimately decided to not seek re-election, leaving it to a new National Assembly and new President to try and put a curb on crime. Ecuador began an election season which was described by the major Spanish newspaper El Pais as conducted, “Under the terror of drug violence.” The country had already experienced political violence in 2023 with the killings of local candidates early in the year, and it got worse during the Presidential campaign. In August the anti-corruption Presidential candidate named Fernando Villavicencio, a former journalist, was killed less than two weeks before the first round of the election. He wasn’t considered a front runner, however he had been fearless in the face of cartel threats, saying at one campaign event, “Come, here I am…let the drug lords come, let the hit men come. The time for threats is over. Here I am,” and at another event,
“Listen well, they have told me to wear the vest but here I am in my sweaty shirt, damn it. You are my bulletproof vest, I don’t need it, you are a brave people, and I am brave like you. You're the ones who take care of me. Come, here I am...you may bend me, but you will never break me.”
Come they did, and the crowd did not protect him: Villavicencio was assassinated by what was said to be a Colombian hit squad. We may never know what happened, as they themselves were murdered in prison, though Villavicencio had said he had been threatened by a drug kingpin associated with Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, while a local crime group called Los Lobos claimed credit for the killing. Regardless, the message was clear. His Vice Presidential candidate Sara Gonzalez began to wear a bullet proof vest “24 hours a day,” saying,
“We are at the brink of becoming a narco state…We are totally sure that this is a political assassination, more than the gangs and the organized crime. There's a political feeling in this, there's a political intention in this…Three days before the debate and Fernando clearly said he had very delicate information that was going to change the way these elections were turning. That information never got to light.”
Given the amount of political corruption, which would later be exposed, we can only imagine what he knew. Days later, local politician Pedro Briones was murdered at his home by gunmen on a motorcycle. It is clearly a bad time to be a politician in Ecuador.
The first round of elections were indecisive, which is common under such systems where many candidates compete in the first round. Luisa Gonzalez, a leftist of Rafael Correa’s party who pledged to revive his social programs, came in first with 33% of the vote. However, the ultra-wealthy businessman Daniel Noboa, whose only experience in politics is having served in the National Assembly for the last abbreviated session, came in a surprise second place with 24%. It was widely considered that most other candidates would get behind Noboa in the runoff, which is what happened. At age 35, competing for an electorate where around 1/4th of voters are between 18-29, the scion of Ecuador’s chief oligarch, banana magnate Alvaro Noboa, won with 52% of the vote. We can’t be sure if his father- who unsuccessfully ran for President five times- was more proud or jealous. Daniel Noboa did not run on clear policies, and did the common thing where a billionaire presents himself as the anti-politician [in this instance, more accurately the son of a billionaire, and Alvaro Noboa’s net worth isn’t agreed on, but is generally considered to be around one billion.] There is a degree of logic in this line of reasoning, that only someone extremely wealth can avoid being bought off by whatever corruption plagues the state- in this case narcos- but at the same, time oligarchs are almost always already connected to the highest levels of corruption. Regardless, Noboa portrayed himself as a center-left candidate, though he mostly focused on security during the campaign. He didn’t get the formal endorsement of any political party and worked with a coalition that got 14 seats in the National Assembly. Meanwhile, his rival’s party got 46 out of 137 seats, while Villavicencio’s party became the main opposition with 19 seats. In short, Noboa faces all of these problems with no sort of mandate in the legislature, but there is at least consensus that security is a priority, though there is always disagreement about if a militarized approach improves security or just leads to more violence. Fortunately, it is a presidential republic so he doesn’t have to form a government out of this inconclusive legislature and he has a good degree of authority over procuring equipment and directing security activities and that sort of thing.
Daniel Noboa was sworn in as Ecuador’s President on November 21st, with 18 months remaining in the Presidential term. Violence in the country had only increased since Lasso dissolved the legislature. The country’s prisons are considered to be major centers of organized crime, and in July they had been rocked with deadly riots, which led to the army being deployed to a jail in Guayaquil- the country’s largest city and the center of drug violence- to get the situation under control. Lasso declared a 60 day state of emergency in the country’s prison system, as well as in a few regions particularly suffering from violence. At the end of September Lasso had reached a deal allowing the deployment of US troops to Ecuador, what is called a “status of forces” agreement, promoted by those in the US who want to further militarize the US’s response to fentanyl [which as near as I can tell doesn’t come from Ecuador anyhow, though it’s the same general cartels.] Upon taking office, Noboa began to implement his pledge to clean up the prisons by working on plans to place some prisoners on barges and build new prisons. In early December Noboa claimed that an unnamed gang had asked for a peace deal, which he cited as evidence they were no longer receiving state protection; he also said he would be getting technical assistance from Israel to take back control of it’s prison system, which I suppose is grimly ironic given what is currently going on in Israel. In early December Ecuador reached a tentative deal to receive $200 million worth of US military equipment, though it hasn’t gone through yet. [Russia’s official state broadcaster TASS claims that Noboa said in a radio interview Ecuador would be transferring $200 million worth of old Soviet equipment to Ukraine in exchange for new US equipment; I don’t see this anywhere else, but that would be in line with a policy the US has been pursuing in Latin America for the last year.] Noboa also repealed a policy decriminalizing carrying a small amount of drugs, saying it promoted “micro-dealing.” Drug reformers think it’s important to separate dealers from users, something in line with Ecuador’s judicial requirements, but if you’ve ever seen The Wire it’s quite easy to imagine how drug dealers would exploit this law by having children deliver small amounts of drugs even if it means making many trips.
In mid-December, police in Ecuador launched a massive operation, carrying out over 75 raids seeking to root out corruption in the judicial system. Attorney General Diana Salazar said the investigation began following the murder of an accused money launderer in prison the year before. Many arrests were made of people throughout the system, including the former police general and the head of the Judiciary Council, Wilman Teran. The arrests were related to corruption and bribery, implying systemic rot which would go far to explain how cartels have taken over the country and its prisons. For his part, Teran called it a “persecution” and accused the government of trying to undermine the judiciary. It is nearly impossible to know the validity of corruption allegations from the outside, since commonly people who are themselves fighting corruption are taken down by the corrupt on these grounds, but one way or another this happening at all shows a high level of corruption. The Attorney General’s office warned that the raids could lead to an escalation of violence, which it now appears may have been an understatement.
Shortly after 2024 began, things in Ecuador got much worse. The crime lord Adolfo “Fito” Macias of the Los Choneros gang, one of the country’s top criminals, escaped from prison in Guayaquil. He had been in prison on a variety of charges since 2011, despite a brief escape in 2013. He was set to be transferred to a maximum security prison when he was found to be gone from his cell. Two guards were charged with helping him escape. Guayaquil is said to be the country’s most dangerous lockup and such crime lords wield immense power in these prisons, so it’s easy to see the challenges transferring him. In December Noboa said he would be cutting off “power outlets and routers” in Fito’s cell. The New York Times included the following incredible quote from Noaba, “You can see on YouTube that Fito’s cell has four outlets, more outlets than in a hotel room.” That is to say, the President of Ecuador could only find out the setup of his cell from Youtube videos which were posted publicly, and the government doesn’t seem to have a diagram of how the prison is currently wired. One sometimes wonders just how much control crime lords are able to have from prison, but in this instance it seems clear he was running an entire command center out of his cell- and posting videos of it on the internet.
In August, Fito was briefly moved until he was returned to the prison after a judge’s ruling, and he released a music video celebrating, in a style called “narcocorrido” which was popularized in Mexico- it it basically gangster mariachi. This music video is one of the more incredible things I’ve ever seen, and presumably most of it was filmed outside of prison, but he doesn’t look like a prisoner in the scenes he is in:
Raids of prisons have turned up many weapons and explosives, but also electronics, appliances, roosters, cock fighting rings, and even pigs. Fito is in fact seen holding a prize rooster in this video. I was initially disturbed to wonder why prisoners would have pigs, but having seen this video I am quite sure they are simply raising them to barbecue. It is obvious that this isn’t just a matter of smuggling things in, but that prisoners mostly have the run of the place, and there are large areas where guards don’t go. Knowing all of this, it begins to make more sense why Ecuador would seek advice from Israel about dealing with these prisons. He probably hadn’t escaped before the planned transfer solely because it was the safest place in the country from which to run a criminal empire.
Following the escape, on Monday Noboa declared a state of emergency as well as a national curfew for 60 days in the country. In response to the emergency declaration there were riots in prisons in six different regions and a number of guards and others were taken hostage. Then, on Tuesday, the TV station takeover happened, awakening the world to the situation in Ecuador. It is said their motive for targeting the station is unknown, but they were quite clearly trying to terrify the public by showing their guns and bombs on live television. For his part, Noboa named 22 criminal groups terrorists organizations, and pledged to defeat them. There were fires and explosions across the country and several police officers were kidnapped. Though the TV station gunmen were ultimately surrounded by police and surrendered, the message was clear. For a time the streets of Ecuador’s cities were deserted. People are terrified of being victims of the gangs or being caught between narcos and the police, and are scared of leaving their children alone, not knowing if they are getting involved with gangs. However, Ecuador is also a poor country, and people have to make a living so they can’t stay home all day. It is a difficult situation.
Noboa declared Ecuador to be in a “state of internal conflict” and is deploying 22,000 soldiers to try and restore order. Some sources are calling the situation a “civil war.” On top of those taken hostage in prison riots, in the city of Riobamba in central Ecuador armed men attacked a prison allowing 38 prisoners to escape, including a “mastermind” known as “The Savage.” Throughout the ordeal, various videos of hostages were all over social media, as their families begged the government to get their loved ones home safely. At least two hostages were executed, but ultimately in an enormous operation involving hundreds of personnel per prison, all hostages were freed and over 1,100 people were arrested. It also gave the government a chance to clear prisons of contraband, but it will probably be mere days before all of those supplies make it back in. In total almost 180 people had been held hostage, primarily prison guards but also some administrative staff. Though the two crime lords remain free, the government seems to have won this round, but a strong message was sent to the public that no one is safe from narcos.
It is not going to be easy to fix Ecuador. There are serious problems with a militarized approach to narcotics traffickers but at times it is necessary. Domestic drug consumption isn’t driving this, so it is not a matter of getting people off drugs to reduce demand or anything of that nature. For the most part this has all been caused by cartels moving into the country. Noboa claims that there are 1,500 Colombians in Ecuador’s prisons [whom he hopes to transfer back to Colombia] as well as many Peruvians and Venezuelans. Clearly, the problem of foreign gangsters cannot be solved with some vocational training: they must be captured or killed. There is no other way to deal with them. At the same time, Ecuador’s youth- and adults- do need opportunities to move them towards a life better than crime. It is commonly believed that poverty causes crime, but though they are linked, it is more common that crime causes poverty, while poverty limits access to the resources necessary to fight crime. Either way, the core challenge of fixing serious security problems involving non-state actors is that it does require economic and social development, but violence prevents the sort of economic and social development that builds strong communities resistant to crime. For now, Noboa wants to follow Nayib Bukele’s model, which has drastically reduced crime in El Salvador, largely by building new prisons and putting the narcos in them. However, it remains unclear if this will work in the long term, or if it can be replicated in a larger country, but it has at least created a level of peace where it is possible to try and fix El Salvador. The same seems to be the only hope for Ecuador.
If Ecuador cannot be fixed, the problems will spread throughout a region which already suffers from the influence of narcotics gangs. Further, this situation, either in the process of being fixed or if it gets ever worse is likely to displace many people. Of course, the most common destination for those leaving Latin America is the United States, which is already suffering from an unprecedented problem with illegal immigrants. The great majority of those crossing the US border are economic migrants facing no genuine fear or persecution. They are then allowed to stay in the country for years while a phony asylum claim goes through the courts- and that assumes they show up or are found for the process. It will rapidly become the case that the United States is in no position to take Ecuadorians who have a legitimate asylum claims because of the malice or incompetence of our rulers in creating the situation, and the selfishness of those are abusing our failed system of processing people who enter illegally. The growing danger in Ecuador shows, even from a “compassionate” perspective, a serious humanitarian problem caused by our border crisis. Further, if people are fleeing gang violence and have a legitimate asylum claim, it is important that the United States have a functional system which prevents gangsters from following peaceful refugees into the country. The best we can do is to try and help Ecuador deal with this problem in their own country, though it’s not obvious how to do that without the risk of exacerbating the violence in an unproductive way. Providing genuine help would require wise leadership, something which is in especially short supply from the United States.
Ecuador is providing a stunning example of state and social collapse. It is not clear what will happen if the government should lose, but we can be sure it will be very bad, because these criminals are incredibly brazen and seem more than willing to kill their way into compliant government. Machiavelli teaches that if a man wishes to fully reform a city he must be alone, which Noboa is, in the since the he is independent and extraordinarily wealthy, so he perhaps has a chance [Discourses, I.9.] However, the laws of Ecuador are mostly fine, it is more of a matter of nefarious outside forces corrupting the country than the need to design a new republic. What is more notable is what Machiavelli teaches about bringing freedom to a corrupt people,
“Once a city has begun to decline through the corruption of its substance, if it ever manages to rise again, this occurs through the exceptional ability of a single man who is alive at the time and not through the exceptional ability of the people as a whole who support good institutions…no single man can live long enough to train well a city accustomed to bad habits…unless they have, at the risk of much danger and bloodshed, brought about its rebirth. Thus, such corruption and so little aptitude for living in freedom arise from an inequality that exists in the city, and if one wishes to bring the city back to a state of equality, it is necessary to employ extraordinary measures, which few know how or wish to employ.” [Discourses, I.17]
Daniel Noboa seems willing to risk danger and bloodshed, and he does wish to employ extraordinary measures, but it is far from apparent that he is a man of exceptional ability who will be able to fix Ecuador. Still, as it stands, he seems to be the country’s only hope against powerful and nefarious forces. For now, he only has 16 more months to try and make a difference.
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