August 18, 2023

Ecuador has been engulfed by an enduring wave of violent crime which has turned a nation once known as an “island of peace” into one of the most violent countries in Latin America. The label was brought into focus on 09 August, when presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, was assassinated. Ahead of elections on 20 August, in our latest article NGS Risk Analyst, Edward Bach, examines the drivers of the insecurity and possible strategies to mitigate it.




The recent assassinations of Fernando Villavicencio on 09 August and congressional candidate Pedro Briones on 14 August – both outspoken critics of crime – elicited shock in the Western media. However, they were hardly anomalous; rather, they are symptomatic of a prevailing climate of insecurity which gives little indication of abating. Ecuador’s homicide rate of 25.5 per 100,000 now exceeds that of Mexico and Colombia, while the number of reported homicides in 2022 was double the corresponding figure in 2021 and quadruple that of 2018. The scale of the assassinations demonstrates both the emboldened nature of organised crime groups and their willingness to intervene at high institutional levels. As Ecuador prepares to head to the polls on 20 August, rampant criminality remains the most prominent issue for many voters.


Political Backdrop


The election comes following the unprecedented triggering of the constitution’s ‘muerte cruzada’ clause by President Guillermo Lasso. The decree permits the dissolution of the executive and legislature, as well as the scheduling of elections during times of a “severe political crisis and internal commotion”. The decree was invoked following a period of political paralysis; President Lasso had faced successive impeachment attempts amid worsening insecurity and personal corruption allegations.


In order to win the presidency, a candidate needs to acquire over 50% of the vote share or Ecuador faces the prospect of a runoff. The eventual victor will only serve the remainder of Lasso’s current term (until 2025), when another election will occur. This raises the spectre of political instability and disruption with several administrations in quick succession, creating fertile ground for organised crime groups.


What is Driving the Violence?


The rapidly escalating violence in Ecuador stems from a fatal combination of several exogenous and endogenous factors which have created idyllic conditions for crime to flourish.


Proliferation of Organised Crime Groups:


The primary driver of violence is the pervasive influence of organised crime groups, both domestic and those of Mexican and Colombian origin. Ecuador’s strategic location between the two largest coca leaf producers coupled with its porous borders make it an extremely convenient operating location for transnational crime groups. Moreover, Ecuador’s comparatively sophisticated infrastructure network and well-developed ports – specifically Guayaquil and Esmeraldas – represent attractive transshipment points for the export of cocaine to North America and further afield.


The shift in operations of organised crime groups into Ecuador was accelerated by internal developments within Colombia. In 2016, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace deal with authorities in Bogotá, in doing so demobilising and relinquishing control of cocaine smuggling routes from southern Colombia into Ecuador. The subsequent fragmentation of the landscape created a highly lucrative vacuum which has driven violent territorial clashes between domestic and international organised crime groups. As intergang warfare intensified in both ferocity and geographic scope, the landscape has become increasingly anarchic and led to the current state of affairs.


Socio-Economic Climate:


Alongside the competing interests of several organised crime groups, a contributing factor to the extremely elevated rate of crime has been the downturn in Ecuador’s economy and living standards. Ecuador was particularly impacted by COVID-19, triggering an economic contraction of 7.8% in 2020. The effects of this downturn were amplified on young men, many of whom were employed in the informal economy with limited access to social welfare provisions. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only 14.4% of the population lived on less than USD3 a day, that figure has now risen to 27%. Additionally, a decade ago, 50% of the population was in ‘adequate employment’ according to government statistics – that figure is down to just 34% now. This deteriorating climate has consigned an increasing number of young men into poverty, in doing so leaving many vulnerable to seduction from organised crime.


Ineffective Security Apparatus:


The proliferation and expansion of organised crime have also been facilitated by the general ineffectiveness of the security apparatus, the primary symptom of which is pervasive corruption. Organised crime groups possess immense sway over the local police force, many members of which accept bribes and collude with the groups. Corruption is increasingly penetrating Ecuador’s other domestic security forces, with successive reported scandals implicating the military. In January, it was announced 43 sailors were under investigation for crimes including gang involvement and drug trafficking, while last year several high-ranking security officials had their visas revoked by the United States over allegations of connections with organised crime. Even when the dysfunctional security apparatus succeeds in detaining organised crime suspects, corruption has infiltrated the judiciary to the extent that suspects are now released from detention at an alarming rate. The blunt nature of security services leaves them powerless in stifling the activities of organised crime groups, while the developing culture of impunity offers further incentive for crime syndicates to expand their operations in Ecuador.


Ecuador’s Potential Paths


With the nation situated at a crossroads ahead of the election, insecurity and rampant criminality remain the most pertinent concerns for many voters. Luisa González of the progressive Citizens Revolution Movement is in the lead in the polls, however, her chances of surpassing the requisite 50% of the vote share to win the election outright seem slim; it is likely a run-off will be required in October. As Ecuador reels in the wake of Villavicencio’s assassination, law and order candidate Jan Topic’s popularity has surged from 4% to 22% in the past month, propelling him to second place in the polls.


Topic has pledged to replicate the controversial policies of President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador. Bukele has received global attention for his policy of mass incarceration to tackle organised crime, which has led to over 68,000 detentions – equivalent to 7% of male Salvadorans aged 14 to 29. Though the policy has attracted universal condemnation from Human Rights Organisations, it has seen homicide rates drop from 51 per 100,000 when Bukele was elected in 2018, to eight per 100,000 in 2022, while also retaining 91% approval among Salvadorans surveyed. However, draconian security deployments witnessed elsewhere across Latin America have generally been ineffective; they often only aggravate violence rather than suppress it. Subsequently, while such a policy has recorded success in El Salvador, it would not necessarily be observed in Ecuador.


Regardless of who wins Sunday’s election (if there is a clear winner) the scale of the task is clear: Ecuador needs root and branch reform. In order to reassert state control over the crime environment, substantive reform of the civil institutions that underpin the security apparatus is indispensable. Such a policy has been successfully adopted in Colombia, where the ‘parapolitics’ scandal led to the arrest of nearly 500 state officials including 60 members of Congress. This offers Ecuador a blueprint of how to institute reform – the new president just needs to implement it.





Author: Edward Bach, Risk Analyst, Northcott Global Solutions


Contact: risk@northcottglobalsolutions.com


Northcott Global Solutions provides risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation.





Material supplied by NGS is provided without guarantees, conditions or warranties regarding its accuracy, and may be out of date at any time. Whilst the content NGS produces is published in good faith, it is under no obligation to update information relating to security reports or advice, and there is no representation as to the accuracy, currency, reliability or completeness. NGS cannot make any accurate warnings or guarantees regarding any likely future conditions or incidents. NGS disclaim, to the fullest extent permitted by law, all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on content and services by any user with respect to acts or omissions made by clients on the basis of information contained within. NGS take no responsibility for any loss or damage incurred by users in connection with our material, including loss of income, revenue, business, profits, contracts, savings, data, goodwill, time, or any other loss or damage of any kind. Image accessed licensed under Creative Commons License.