Ecuador: A Potential Crackdown after Continued Violence
Ecuador cracks down on gang violence as states of emergency have been declared in two provinces. During the night of November 1, 2022, explosive attacks led to the deaths of five police officers. In Guayaquil, more than six explosives have been reported. Two of the policemen were killed after being attacked in their patrol car, while three others were killed throughout the city. In Esmeraldas, there were three reported explosions and police officers were held hostage until later released. Following these acts, the states of emergency were declared by Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso for the provinces of Guayas (where Guayaquil is located) and Esmeraldas.
This violence is yet another example of the ongoing conflict from gangs that are connected to drug trafficking throughout Latin America. In Guayas, drug trafficking has been correlated to approximately 70% of violent deaths. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Ecuador had been making progress on crime rates between 2010 and 2018 by decreasing intentional homicide rates. Studies suggest this was achieved through the state legalization of gangs. However, there was a spike in violence during 2021 due to drug trafficking that lead to disputes between gangs. These gangs fight with each other for control over drugs, territorial areas, and routes, especially due to the Guayaquil port. The Guayaquil port is a key port in Ecuador, known as the “primary port”. In 2021, Ecuador’s police force seized 210 tons of cocaine, 96 of which were captured in the city of Guayaquil. Some have linked this drug trafficking-related gang violence with Mexican cartel involvement. Cartels have “alliances” to certain gangs in Ecuador in order to control drug flow and offer security for routes. Local gangs are offered money in exchange for these services.
Drastic consequences for the Ecuadorian people have prompted a response from the Ecuadorian government, by what is being referred to as a crackdown. The most recent crackdown in November 2022, included two declarations of states of emergency and the implementation of curfews. Measures are expected to last 45 days and have been previously used for similar purposes. These new measures continue to raise concerns over how issues of gang and prison violence are being handled by the Ecuadorian government, igniting further calls for action and reform.
Not only is gang violence within itself a concern, but so is its manifestation through prison violence, drawing the government authority’s attention to these issues. Prison violence in Ecuador has become a concern for international human rights organizations, as oftentimes human rights violations are suspected within these prisons. In Latacunga, a prison riot occurred in October 2022 in which at least 15 prisoners were killed and 33 left injured. In the largest prison of Ecuador, the Penitenciaria del Litoral of Guayaquil (Litoral Penitentiary) houses approximately 9,000 people. Here, another prison riot ensued in September of 2021, leaving 116 prisoners dead and 78 injured. This riot has been attributed to gangs competing for control of the prison. In 2021, prison riots were the cause of at least 316 inmates’ deaths, an increase of nearly sevenfold compared to 2020. Such prison violence has been continuously increasing since 2018. These numbers suggest the immense issues that prison violence highlights. Overall, Ecuador’s prison systems contain approximately 33,500 people and are over capacity by 11.3%. Organizations like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights suggest that the prison system is struggling due to inadequate living conditions and poor policies. The same organization has called upon the government to invest more resources and improve prison conditions, like mitigating overcrowding, in order to adequately address the violence. The United Nations and Amnesty International have also suggested increased reforms, especially considering the impacts this violence has on Ecuadoran communities.
Gang and prison violence has also been impacting communities throughout Ecuador, and not only the inmates themselves. Families of inmates, especially of those enduring inhumane conditions within prisons, have called upon the Ecuadorian government to act and reform the prison system. Some family members even suggest that the true number of inmate deaths is higher than the numbers that the government is acknowledging. Families have been creating organizations to call upon the state, like the Committee of Families for Justice in Prison. Some scholars attribute the issues within prison systems to state neglect of the prisons, lack of rehabilitation services, improperly trained guards, and rampant corruption within the prison system. Recommendations regarding these issues have been suggested, but to little avail. Legislators of Ecuador’s National Assembly made over 70 suggestions and the Human Rights Secretariat for Ecuador released a report that also included recommendations such as disassembling the gangs active within prison.
The extent to which gangs in Ecuador are able to control prisons and incite violence suggests a major problem and need for change. The many lives lost and collective trauma of such violence demonstrates that the government needs to act and find better solutions. This can be done by a holistic analysis of a variety of interconnected factors like prison riots, gang violence, drug trafficking, corruption, etc. The measures from the state should also include prison reforms, like rehabilitative services, proper guard training, better organization, and curbing corruption. Due to the fact that these issues still continue and there is little to no accountability, the government of Ecuador must implement different approaches to improve the situation overall, with the main goal being to prevent further violence. If not, the situation could potentially worsen and spiral, inflicting more violence. Action taken by the government within this situation could determine key elements of drug trafficking and associated gang and prison violence within Ecuador, and more broadly, Latin America.