Is Ecuador Lost? Inside the Crisis Engulfing a Once-Gleaming Nation

MARCOS PIN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Guest post by Antonio Graceffo

Ecuador’s escalating drug violence has recently grabbed global headlines, but the crisis didn’t bloom overnight. Over the past five years, alarming signs of a deteriorating security situation have been well documented.

During this time, the country’s murder rate has skyrocketed sixfold, and the amount of drugs trafficked through its borders has soared by a staggering 300%.

Last summer, the world watched in shock as European authorities made the largest drug seizure in history: 9 tons of cocaine concealed within a shipment of bananas. Even more unsettling, however, was the point of origin: Ecuador.

This traditionally low-key producer, primarily concerned with its domestic market, had suddenly emerged as a major player in the global cocaine trade.

Once deemed a safer haven compared to its narco-trail neighbors, Ecuador had long wrestled with higher levels of corruption and crime than Western democracies.

Yet, it seemed worlds away from the chaos gripping other South and Central American nations. But that illusion shattered recently when gunmen stormed a live TV station, taking hostages and forcing the government’s hand.

This brazen act was the tipping point, a declaration of war on the cartels and gangs that had been steadily gnawing at the country’s security.

For five years, Ecuador has witnessed a terrifying escalation – a murder rate skyrocketing, prison riots echoing in the streets, car bombs erupting, shots ringing out, hostages taken, and politicians assassinated. The narco-trail’s shadow had finally engulfed the nation it once skirted.

Ecuador’s struggle with drug-related crime echoes many challenges faced by its Central and South American neighbors.

Deep-seated corruption infects institutions, with officials in prisons, courts, and even the police and military collaborating with cartels.

This, coupled with weak governance, stark poverty and inequality, resource scarcity, and public disillusionment, creates a fertile ground for illicit activity.

However, Ecuador’s story adds a unique twist – its unfortunate geographic position.

Nestled between major cocaine producers and the vast Pacific Ocean, it’s become a prime target for sophisticated drug cartels from across the region.

This strategic location, offering smugglers direct access to the Pacific and bypassing the Panama Canal, has turned Ecuador into a coveted transshipment point for narcotraffickers.

Overcrowded and corrupt prisons exacerbate the issue, with gangs taking control of many facilities, leading to frequent large-scale hostage takings of guards and murders of inmates.

Simultaneously, developments in Colombia have compounded Ecuador’s challenges.

The peace deal between the Bogota government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has negatively impacted Ecuador.

The once-powerful revolutionary group, which had a near-monopoly on trafficking, is now out of the picture, creating opportunities for new routes and new gangs. Some FARC factions that rejected the treaty with the Colombian government relocated their operations to Ecuador.


Dr. Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China MBA, is an economist and national security analyst with a focus on China and Russia. He is a graduate of American Military University.

 

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