Ecuador’s Internal Armed Conflict
On 9 January, armed young men stormed a TV studio in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Gunfire was heard on air as the host of the programme, with a rifle to his head, pleaded for his life. Workers fled as police stormed the building and regained control, arresting thirteen. Gangsters also temporarily took over the University of Guayaquil, and education was promptly moved online. Just over a week later, César Suarez, the public prosecutor leading the investigation into the assault on the TV studio, was shot dead in his car.
The proximate cause of the escalating violence was the escape of 44-year-old Adolfo Mesías, aka Fito, on the day he was to be transferred to a maximum security prison from La Regional jail in Guayaquil, where he had been held since 2011 (having escaped briefly for several months in 2013).
Considered since the 1980s to be a peaceful oasis compared to its neighbours Colombia and Peru – in part because of comprehensive land reform in the 1960s, in part because of a lack of coca production – Ecuador is now officially at war: ‘an internal armed conflict’, in the words of the president, Daniel Noboa. How did a South American republic of 18 million people (1.5 million live abroad), with deeply rooted democratic traditions, go from being one of the least to one of the most violent in the hemisphere, with a homicide rate of 46 per 100,000, up from 5.8 per 100,000, in six years?
The army has been deployed nationwide to combat the gangsters who, from prison, run the country. Since 9 January, there have been thirteen attacks on public and private infrastructure, and as many assaults on police stations. Eleven kidnapped police officers have been released and more than 5400 people have been arrested, 237 of them on terrorism charges. Eight of Fito’s immediate family members were detained in Córdoba, Argentina. Six alleged gang members have been killed, along with two policemen out of a military-police joint task force of three thousand, in the course of more than 66,000 operations, which have netted more than forty tonnes of cocaine, 1782 guns, ninety thousand bullets, almost ten thousand explosive devices and 28 boats, including a submarine with three Colombians on board.
More important, they caught two peces gordos. Carlos Arturo Landázuri, better known as El Gringo, ran a remnant of the FARC operating in the Pacific border provinces of Esmeraldas and Manabí. He was arrested on 22 January in Ibarra, in the Andean corridor north of Quito. And on 1 February in Guayaquil, police arrested Henry Loaiza (also known, like his father, as El Alacrán, ‘the Scorpion’). He was a crucial intermediary between the FARC remnants, the Colombian Norte del Valle cartel and the Ecuadorian gang Los Tiguerones (who have lately been absorbed by Los Lobos).
Since 2020, Fito has been the leader of the Choneros, the country’s biggest gang, which he helped establish in the 1990s in his native province, Manbabí, whose capital is the port city of Manta (where, not incidentally, the US military had a base until 2009). The Choneros linked up with representatives from the Sinaloa Cartel, as well as from various Colombian outfits – most of them paramilitary, including the one run by Scorpion Sr – that proliferated after the fall of Medellín and Cali in the mid-1990s.
In other words, the gangs of the Ecuadorian Pacific, best thought of as integral parts of international organisations, shipped untold tonnes of Colombian coke through Manta and Guayaquil to Central and North America. The stakes could not be higher: thousands of people have been killed in the fighting between Los Choneros and Los Lobos. (A similar fate has befallen Venezuela in the past ten to fifteen years, accelerated by crippling US sanctions.)
The cocaine trade, coupled with the corrupt deregulation and dismantling of the state after Rafael Correa’s second term ended in 2017, has put Ecuador on similar a path to Mexico and Colombia (not to mention Honduras and Guatemala). All levels of the state, including the police and armed forces, have been penetrated by organised crime.
Like Peru, Colombia, Panama and Chile, Ecuador has also witnessed massive, nationwide popular uprisings. But divisions and fractures, in particular between the Indigenous movement of the central highlands, on the one hand, and urban trade unions and social movements on the other, have prevented a national popular bloc from winning elections.
Noboa – the 36-year-old scion of a banana export company, who was revealed last October to own shell companies in Panama, which should make him ineligible for office under Ecuadorian law – won last year’s snap election by 4 per cent. His centre-left opponent, Luisa González, took most of the coast and part of the sparsely populated Amazon, but lost the densely settled central highlands, where the Indigenous Quichua population is concentrated (although she did well in the rural Indigenous areas of Cotopaxi, Chimborazo and Tungurahua).
The pattern was set in 2021, when the centre-left candidate, Andrés Arauz, won the first round by 13 per cent but lost in the run-off because Pachakutik, the party of the third-placed candidate, Yaku Pérez, an Indigenous rights activist who picked up almost 20 per cent in the first round, withheld its support. (Its 27 seats in the National Assembly were last year reduced to four.) Arauz’s right-wing opponent, Guillermo Lasso, a millionaire banker, won handily in the central highlands.
With inequality and the informal economy exploding along with criminal violence since the Covid-19 pandemic, and no real economic recovery, Ecuador’s dominant class is now composed of narco-criminal, agro-export, mining, oil, finance and real estate-construction fractions. They are not necessarily separate, nor entirely domestic, but linked through conglomerates and other interlocking corporate structures. Its revancha against correismo began when Correa’s vice-president, Lenín Moreno, was (narrowly) elected to succeed him. Once in office, he pulled a bait and switch, running to Trump and the IMF, and persecuting Correa and his followers in the name of anti-corruption (as happened to Lula and Dilma in Brazil under Michel Temer, Dilma’s vice-president and successor).
Moreno’s unpopularity, which dropped below 10 per cent, and incompetence in office, not to mention his invitation to the US military to return, helped erode the legitimacy of the Ecuadorian state en todo. By the time he left office in 2021, prison riots and turf wars between gangs along the Pacific coast had become commonplace. They continued under Lasso, as organised crime fused with and penetrated the state.
Last year, facing impeachment on charges of corruption and alleged links to organised crime, Lasso dissolved the national assembly, triggering elections. Eleven days before the first round of voting in August, one of the candidates, Fernando Villavicencio, a former journalist who had investigated organised crime, was assassinated. Noboa, who took the reins in November, will see out the last 18 months of Lasso’s term. It seems likely that he will further militarise the country, and the criminal justice system, to deal with the problems created by the three previous administrations.
In terms of fighting organised crime, it is too late, since there is of course no talk of moving back in a more social democratic direction. Anti-imperial nationalism, in the figure of Correa, who lives in exile in Belgium, is the demon the Ecuadorian ruling class and its transnational allies, licit and illicit, state and non-state, aim to banish. Ecuador may for now seem an extreme case in the hemisphere (along with Mexico and Colombia), but Argentina could follow a similar course in the coming years, and Brazil may not be far behind.
If you’d like to get an email newsletter every couple of weeks letting you know what’s new on the LRB blog, you can click here to sign up.