Drug Lords are Destroying Ecuador

Op-Ed by Emily Thompson

The infiltration of Mexican drug cartels into local criminal gangs in Ecuador is causing severe harm to the country. It has led to a surge in organized crime, including drug trafficking, money laundering, and extortion. The collaboration between these cartels and local gangs has heightened violence, creating a sense of insecurity for both those involved in criminal activities and innocent civilians.

Furthermore, this infiltration has also resulted in widespread corruption within law enforcement agencies and government institutions, weakening Ecuador’s institutions and undermining the rule of law.

The main reason cartels are interested is because Ecuador is a primary drug distribution point to the rest of the world. And its main product, cocaine from its neighbors Colombia and Peru, often ends up in the U.S. and Europe.

For instance, on Sunday, Ecuador experienced its largest single drug seizure ever when it uncovered a massive stash of narcotics at a pig farm in Estero Lagarto, located in the coastal province of Los Ríos, approximately 155 miles from the capital, Quito. This operation led to the discovery of 22 tons of cocaine hydrochloride, with a value of $1 billion on the international market. The drugs were expertly packaged into brick shapes and labeled with the logos of various airlines, indicating their intended destinations.

Ecuador has experienced increasing turmoil since 2019, as officials attempt to uncover links between drug gangs and the police, judges, and politicians. The recent outbreak of violence in the country, involving gang-related conflicts, began with the disappearance of a notorious gangster, José Adolfo Macías Villamar, triggering chaos and riots in major cities. Ecuador’s historically peaceful reputation has been marred by a surge in violence, attributed to its geographical location between cocaine-producing countries, a weakened state due to budget cuts, and gang recruitment amid widespread poverty.

President Noboa declared a state of exception and later an armed conflict, seeking to assert military control over borders and ports and modernize law enforcement. However, his administration faces challenges, and the violence continues.

The declaration of an armed conflict in Ecuador is unprecedented and raises concerns about escalation, casualties, and adherence to international humanitarian law. Security forces are now authorized to use lethal force against designated groups, potentially leading to more significant casualties and civilian harm, but applying these rules in a conflict where combatants blend with civilians is challenging.

To effectively combat criminal gangs and drug cartels, Ecuador must adopt a multi-faceted approach that addresses both the symptoms and the root causes of this challenge. This strategy should encompass strengthening law enforcement capabilities, improving the judicial system, fostering economic development and education, and engaging in international cooperation, particularly with the United States.

In terms of law enforcement, Ecuador needs to enhance the capacity of its police and military forces mainly through better training, modern equipment, and improved intelligence capabilities to disrupt the operations of criminal organizations. Specialized units should be created at the same time to tackle specific aspects of cartel activities, such as money laundering, drug trafficking, and violence.

The judicial system in Ecuador also requires strengthening and the government must ensure the independence and integrity of courts, reduce corruption, and enhance the efficiency of legal proceedings. A robust judicial system is essential to ensure that criminals are prosecuted effectively and justly, discouraging others from engaging in such activities.

Addressing the socioeconomic factors that contribute to the rise of gangs and cartels is equally important. Implementing policies that promote economic development, particularly in impoverished areas, will help reduce the appeal of criminal organizations. Improving education and providing vocational training for example would certainly offer better alternatives to joining criminal gangs.

The presence of Mexican drug cartels in Ecuador contributes to regional instability and requires cooperation with neighboring countries and international partners. A comprehensive approach is necessary, encompassing the strengthening of law enforcement, judicial reform, transparency initiatives, and social programs to address the root causes of criminal involvement.

If Ecuador is serious about tackling its problems and facing these challenges head-on, the U.S. can assist in several ways such as training and resource support for Ecuadorian law enforcement and military. This can include sharing intelligence, providing specialized training, and supplying equipment.

In addition to training and support, the U.S. should offer assistance in reforming and strengthening Ecuador’s judicial system through training programs for judges and prosecutors, and by sharing best practices in legal processes and corruption reduction.

The U.S. also could also play a crucial role in economic and social development efforts. With direct aid, investment in development projects, and support for education and vocational training programs, these efforts would help address the underlying socioeconomic issues that fuel the growth of criminal organizations.

Due to the fact that the drug problem in Ecuador directly affects the U.S., both countries should engage in collaborative efforts to control the trafficking of drugs and weapons perhaps through coordinated patrols, joint operations, and information sharing.

To fight the cartels and gangs, American diplomatic and political support would aid Ecuador in its regional and international efforts to combat organized crime, such as with support in multilateral forums and negotiations, as well as advocacy for policies that target the global drug trade.

Through a combination of internal reforms and international cooperation, particularly with the U.S., Ecuador can make significant strides in its fight against criminal gangs and drug cartels. Ultimately, it is essential to dismantle these criminal networks and restore law and order in Ecuador. Otherwise, the drug lords will continue to destroy Ecuador and both countries will suffer the consequences.

Image: The New Humanitarian

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