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Defense & Security

Crisis in Ecuador

Ecuadorian military during the internal armed conflict, 13 January 2024.

Image Source : Ceibos, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

by Francesco Martone

First Published in: Jan.23,2024

Feb.02, 2024

A wave of violence, neoliberalism and drug trafficking

Ecuador has been grappling with a profound crisis marked by heightened insecurity, exacerbated by the implementation of neoliberal policies and widespread impoverishment over the past few years. The looming threat of a quasi-permanent state of conflict, at least until the upcoming elections, coupled with a concerning trend towards creeping authoritarianism, while not yet institutionalized, casts a shadow over the current state of affairs.

“By associating the presentation of meat to a dog with a bell sound for a certain number of times, eventually the bell sound alone will determine salivation in the dog.” - Pavlov's experiment

There is much neuropolitics in the unraveling of the most recent events in Ecuador, with the worsening internal crisis and the draconian responses decided by President Daniel Noboa. There is the neuropolitics of terror, there is neuropolitics in the performance anxiety of a newly elected president who is confronted with a situation, already clear from the outset, that threatens to undermine his eventual future election. And there is much psychopolitics in a country that cannot shake off its visceral hatred of the years of the "Revolucion Ciudadana" on the one hand or its unconditional love for its father Rafael Correa on the other. And who inevitably falls back "like Pavlov's dog," into electoral choices that favor the country's economic elites in the belief that they are choosing the lesser evil. And there is a country exhausted by impoverishment, marginalization, viral weakening of the state apparatuses. And on the other side, again, overseas, there is a kind of Pavlovian reflex that a civil war, or a coup, is going on in Ecuador today. A hell on Earth, in short. A Pavlovian reflex that seems to hide a sort of latent "Orientalism" that still permeates the reading of events on this continent on the other side of the ocean. It will therefore be necessary to use the classic Occam's razor, to try to debunk the facts, news, and interpretations and get to the grain of things. The grain of things is so called. Ecuador has been experiencing for some years now an overt situation of increasing insecurity brought about by the penetration of as many as 22 drug trafficking gangs (Colombian, or affiliated with the Mexican cartels of Jalisco - Nueva Generación and Sinaloa, assisted by Albanian gangs present on the country's coast, which also suggests connections with the Calabrian "ndrangheta") mostly in the coastal regions. The homicide rate is among the highest in Latin America. Regions such as Esmeraldas - with an overwhelming majority of Afro population, which has always been marginalized and impoverished, or Guayas, in one way or another, are fertile or strategically relevant terrain for cocaine routes. The former due to the great availability of cheap "labor," "gatilleros" they call them, notably suburban boys left to their own devices, victims of a historical fate that marginalizes them, who for a fistful of dollars receive a gun and simply pull the trigger. Or they go to extort bribes, "vaccinations," from traders or families. The latter for the important port of Guayaquil, territory to be controlled to export drugs to the United States and Europe, often inside banana containers, as happened in a recent large seizure at the port of Gioia Tauro, Calabria, Italy. The penetration of narcos gangs into Ecuador undergoes a paradoxical acceleration with the peace process in Colombia when border areas "controlled" by the FARC are abandoned and left prey to new paramilitary formations or the coca-producing gangs. Ecuador thus finds itself between two producing regions such as Colombia and Peru, with porous borders, small and large ports from which to ship cargoes, a social fabric torn apart by years and years of neoliberal policies, an economy centered almost exclusively on an extractivist model that leaves large swaths of the population impoverished (and which is, after all, the "good" face of that of the narco-economies), a society ridden with enormous inequalities, first and foremost in urban areas, informal labor markets, and rampant corruption in state apparatuses. A dollarized economy that also makes money laundering easier, and further backed up by widespread illegal gold mining. What better combination for the narco-traffickers to make it the place for processing and shipping their goods? There is a strong correlation between the application of the IMF's neoliberal "shock doctrine," and its social, political and economic consequences, and the spread of organized crime. A correlation that calls for a indepth analysis of the root causes causes of what can be considered a "polycrisis" that runs through the small Andean country, certainly not used to situations such as that experienced in the past in Colombia or currently in Mexico. A polycrisis that is evident by analyzing in filigree the events of the last six months. Let us rewind the tape to August of last year. Riots have been igniting in prisons for some time. Gang clashes, often aided by the connivance of prison authorities (how else would one explain the presence of weapons and explosives used in the riots?) rage with unprecedented brutality. The prison problem stems from widespread pan-penalism in state apparatuses and an essentially punitive and deeply patriarchal view of retribution, and one that has disproportionately increased the type of crimes for which people go to jail (even for driving without a license). And by the construction in 2014 of three maximum security prisons in which narcos are locked up, creating the conditions for their transformation into command centers and theaters of internal wars among them. The presidential election campaign, convened prematurely following then-President Lasso's decision to dissolve parliament recurring to the mechanism of "muerte cruzada" and go to the polls to avoid impeachment proceedings for corruption, is actually dominated by the issue of security. Close to the opening of the polls, there comes the knockout blow that will determine the election outcome. First the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, a champion of the fight against corruption, killed in Quito at a campaign event, few weeks after Augustin Intriago, the mayor of Manta, another port city, a territory in the hands of gangs like others on the coast. In the days that followed, the hitherto minor figure of the coastal candidate, an expression of local and national oligarchies - the same ones that had supported Lasso at the time - emerged in the polls. A young man unknown to most, a sort of electora underdog, Daniel Noboa, son of "Alvarito" great tycoon of the banana industry, a permanent candidate for president, and grandson of Isabel a Guayaquil’s wealthiest real estate entrepreneur. In the runoff Noboa wins against the Revolucion Ciudadana candidate, Luisa Gonzales, and immediately makes of security his priority. He faces a very complex scenario. A Congress in which on paper it does not enjoy a majority (although it will later vote by a majority for the first economic measures and the state of internal armed conflict also by virtue of a pact with important sectors of the oppositions), the overwhelming majority of territories controlled by opposition parties (Revolucion Ciudadana and Pachakutik, the reference party of the powerful CONAIE, Confederation of Indigenous Organizations of Ecuador). In the background is the important victory in the national referendum against oil extraction in the Yasuni, which foreshadows the existence of a social and ecological movement far stronger than electoral numbers. In short, Noboa appears from the outset to be a kind of lame duck who will experience a situation, to return to the neuropolitics mentioned above, of a real post-electoral stress disorder, squeezed between the urgency of giving strong and impactful signals to counter organized crime and that of responding in the short time of his term (new elections are due for mid 2025), to the interests of the lobbies to which he refers. Tertium non datur, even if that tertium is represented by the overwhelming majority of the country, already affected by the pandemic. And it is precisely there, in that "tertium," "from below," Uruguayan sociologist Raul Zibechi would say, that decision makers should start to reconstruct a plausible hypothesis of a country capable of another future. It is that tertium to which the country's resources should be devoted, young people and adolescents left alone and in the grip of criminal gangs, with fathers and mothers migrating out of desperation, crossing the Isthmus of Darien on foot to try to get to the United States. So even before he takes office, Noboa finds himself making some pre-government reshuffles, launches a security plan, "Phoenix," then decides to get the inconvenient vice president, a great Vox sympathizer, out of the way by sending her to Israel with the assignment of "special envoy" for peace. And he gets to work. A few weeks go by and the "Metastasis" scandal explodes, proof of how far the narcos have managed to penetrate the judicial sector, squeezed between corruption and death threats. In the meantime, the president begins to set his economic agenda by presenting laws aimed mainly at flexibilizing the labor market, creating free-trade, tax-free zones that coincide with the large estates and plantations of the agribusiness tycoons, announcing the removal of fuel subsidies, the main detonant of last year's indigenous uprising, brutally suppressed by the Lasso government. A "ley economica" that would create great resistance in the country, and which responds, along with the others, to the need to secure support from the International Monetary Fund. In parallel, funds to local authorities are reduced, the security department under his direct command is even closed. A tax "amnesty" for the highest incomes is announced. Cases of corruption in the security apparatus follow one another. Noboa prepares a package of legislative proposals and amendments to the Constitution that would allow the police and army to have a free hand and enjoy total immunity, which in fact is already the case thanks to the decrees issued by Lasso, who several times resorted, in vain, to the state of emergency. Nothing new then. He then attempts the popular plebiscite card a few months before the new election deadline. To the first 11 referendum questions announced, it then adds others, even including issues that only partly have to do with the issue of security. These include the opening of casinos, or measures to ease foreign direct investments. Proposals that a leading constitutionalist and former member of the Constitutional Court, Ramiro Avila Santamaria, defined as unconstitutional or unfounded. The decision is now up to the Court. Then comes the sensational news of the escape from prison in Guayaquil of one of the leaders of the Choneros gang, alias "Fito," allegedly occurring as early as Christmas, and of another leader of the "Lobos" apparently implicated in the murder of Villavicencio. A severe blow to the government's credibility to which Noboa responds with yet another declaration of a state of emergency, resulting in a curfew from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., a decision to have the army assist the police in public order operations, and the restriction of the right of assembly and the inviolability of the home. The narcos' response is immediate: new riots in prisons, attacks on some police stations, and the "raid" - the details of which have yet to be fully clarified - of a commando breaking into a live broadcast of a Guayaquil television station. A blow to the heart of his main electorate. Fact of the matter is that within a handful of hours of the blitz a new decree is issued in which the President - for the first time in the country's history - declares a state of internal armed conflict, that would be fought by the army, and recognizing the 22 gangs as "belligerent" parties. The crisis thus shifts from being a matter of public order to one of actual war, governed by international humanitarian law, such as the Geneva convention. Upon the announcement of the measure, the country goes into panic. Classes are suspended and will remain in online modality for several days, the evacuation of public buildings is ordered, and contingents of soldiers are dispatched to guard sensitive targets. The president locks himself up in the Carondelet Palace with senior state officials to decide what to do. After a few hours, military big brass in full uniform appear in front of the cameras, explaining the situation to the country and giving the line. A coup? There goes the first Pavlovian reflex. And yet no, Decree 111 declaring a state of "internal armed conflict" is overwhelmingly approved by Congress, even by the leftist opposition parties that had from the outset given declaration in favor of national unity. Indeed the main concern is that of not appearing as those who throw up their hands in the face of organized crime, a tasty opportunity for opposing parties in the upcoming 2025 presidential and parliamentary elections. A civil war? Not even, since we are not faced with organizations structured in paramilitary form, nor are we faced with an armed conflict on a national scale, but rather with public order operations "with boots on the ground" in well-defined territories. The declaration of war is in fact a media coup for effect to create the conditions for a "national unity" and "war", in which a clear distribution of tasks is emerging. On the one hand, the military, which from now on takes command of public order operations, with the police at their service (something that creates quite many frictions) and which can thus reaffirm their role and their credibility before the people. It must be said that the presence of the military in the streets is - at least in the capital Quito - very sporadic, the effect appears to be mostly symbolic. On the contrary the situation is pretty different in prisons where the military can now intervene freely to suppress riots and free that hundred hostages still in the hands of the rioters. Or when launching raids or searches in the "hot" outskirts of crime-ridden cities. However, even in the symbolic also lurks the risk of a pervasive "securitization" of public space, resulting in the inhibition of every possible form of dissent or social conflict. Noboa was quick to declare that even those who do not take action against gangs, (by extension one could also interpret those who oppose his policies) could be considered "the enemy." And then, in that public space now controlled by the military, there is a clear risk that the real victims of repression will end up being those marginal and marginalized classes, guilty only of being such, or of having dark skin. The precedent of "false positives" in Colombia comes to mind, where the military, in order to demonstrate the success of their operations, displayed to the public corpses of poor people in guerrilla uniforms. The military thus takes over – de facto - the public space determining by default the direction in which the country will go. In parallel, the private space is taken care of by the president with new decree-laws presented invoking the need to raise funds for internal warfare, from raising VAT to 15 percent, to the liberalization of the energy sector, the rejection of the result of the public consultation on Yasuni in order to continue drilling to generate funds to support the “war”, to policies aimed at attracting foreign capital. In the background are two agreements on cooperation in the military and security sector with the United States signed months ago by Lasso providing for the albeit temporary presence of the military on the national territory. They are in a hurry in Washington, with the specter of Trumpian “America First” isolationism looming. No surprise that the Ecuadorean Constitutional Court ruled that no approval by Congress is required. Then the free trade agreement with China, so far stalled by Congress, is due to go into effect soon. What about what exists and lives between public and private space? Movements? Civil society organizations? Theirs are the only expressions of criticism and dissent. CONAIE declares solidarity with the victims of the conflict, urges communities to organize indigenous guards to protect their territories (so far almost untouched by narco violence) and warns the government not to use the pretext of war to impose anti-popular measures. Its Amazonian organizations have recently taken to the streets to protest the construction of one of the two “Bukele-model” megaprisons in the Pastaza province. Environmental and indigenous movements are now denouncing Noboas’ decision against the ITT Yasuni’s decision. On the other hand, human rights organizations point the finger at the inappropriateness of the use of the military instrument, and the possible serious effects on human rights. The risks to the millions of Ecuadorians and Ecuadoreans working in informal economies or on temporary contracts are also stressed, as well as how the state of exception may increase cases of intra-family and gender-based violence. The rest is still a work in progress. The risk of a sort of permanent state of war that will characterize the country and the public debate at least until the next elections is just around the corner together with a creeping authoritarianism, certainly not at the institutional level, but surely in the state of affairs. Although the decrees of emergency and state of internal armed conflict have a duration of two months, it is highly unlikely that in that time the state will be able to declare victory. Since when you declare a war you must also be clear about when you are going to win it. Which at the moment is very vague and indefinite. Will it be when all Colombian or Venezuelan criminals are deported? Which is very difficult since the Constitution recognizes the human right to free mobility. Or when will they all be put in jail? Or when they will all be "shot down"? (numbers range from 30 to 50 thousand gang members), according to the term used by the mainstream press. This article was published originally in the Transnational Institute under the Creative Commons - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 licence

First published in :

TNI - Transnational Institute

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Francesco Martone

Francesco Martone is a member of the Executive Committee of the Global Alliance on the Rights of Nature, and a long-term activist involved in struggles for peace, human rights and climate justice. 

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