Ecuador: The Next Domino to Fall to Autocracy?

The U.S. and other like-minded democracies have an obligation to assist Ecuador in combatting criminality while preserving essential civil liberties. Enduring democratic leadership in Ecuador and the world will have to bring both effective law enforcement and civil liberties to douse the fire.


Source: The New York Times.

Leaders of the world’s democracies, convening a few months ago in South Korea, pitched the tagline “Democracy Delivers…opportunities, digital freedom, prosperity, free elections.” etc.  However well-intentioned, the messaging missed the mark. By touting the benefits of democracy, the leaders directed their message to those in failing democracies, not to lose hope and fall for the siren song of rising populist autocrats. In doing so, these democratic leaders fundamentally failed to understand the modern autocrat’s appeal. This failure continues to result in the autocrats winning at the ballot box. In 2022 Freedom House found that autocracy is making gains against democracy and encouraging emergent leaders to abandon the democratic path. Countries that suffered democratic declines in 2022 outnumbered those that improved by two to one.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in our own Western Hemisphere. In 2000, thirty-four of thirty-five countries in our Hemisphere were nominal electoral democracies.  Since then, these democratic governments have simply not delivered for their people.  As a region, Latin America has the greatest income inequality in the world.  Access to education, health, and social services remains at some of the lowest levels in the world. Official corruption in too many of these countries is endemic. Covid put all of this in stark relief as unemployment (30% in some countries) eviscerated the then-growing middle class. It is no surprise that political instability has risen dramatically.  Even the now-faded promise of Free Trade Agreements between the U.S. and a dozen or so countries in the region has failed to provide enough opportunities for burgeoning young Latin populations, as reflected in migrant caravans headed for the U.S. Southern Border.

Democracy summiteers have correctly cited the foregoing as threats to democracy. However, where they have been tone-deaf is on the one issue that is having the most profound effect on instability, out-migration, and the embrace of populist autocrats in the region…the withering of state-provided public, or citizen, security. Democratic governments and leaders have failed to recognize that the provision of public security is THE primordial responsibility of government and that all too many governments in failing democracies have not delivered this essential condition. 

Latin America, in the absence of armed conflict, has the highest rates of crime and violence in the world. The region has ten times more homicides than Europe. In poll after poll, increasing numbers of Latin Americans are citing the degradation of public security as their biggest concern. A recent poll in Ecuador cited a whopping 85% of the respondents claiming that spiking violence is their chief concern. In Ecuador, and neighboring Andean states, drug cartels, organized crime groups, vigilantes, and gangs have taken over the traditional role of the state in providing security. These Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) have evolved into criminal corporations, moving well beyond their “traditional” pursuits of extortion and drug trafficking into human smuggling (Mexican cartels earned an estimated $7 billion last year by moving people across our border). The Department of Homeland Security estimated that TCO “enterprises” reached over $100 billion in gross profits in 2022. In addition to people and drug smuggling, TCO growth businesses now include government procurement, all manner of services, pirating of intellectual property, real estate, and commercial supply chains.    

Salvadorans confronting decades of burgeoning homicides, violence, and general lawlessness elected a two-time mayor in 2019.  Enter Nayib Bukele, 41 years old, the brash President of El Salvador. – the self-described “coolest dictator in the world.”  He pledged to end the country’s endemic gang-induced violence. El Salvador had the ignominious moniker of the world’s “Homicide Capital.” In February 2020 Bukele sent the Army into the country’s unicameral Assembly to “encourage” the passage of a bill that provided critical U.S. government funds for the police and army. Surrounded by soldiers and sitting in the President of the Assembly’s chair, he announced, “It’s clear who is in control of the situation, and we’re going to put the decision in the hands of God. He also describes himself as “God’s Emissary”.  

Since 78 people were killed in a single weekend in March of 2022, he has imprisoned over 68,000 Salvadorans for suspected “gang affiliations”, suspended civil liberties under a rolling state of emergency, bypassed legislators, and packed the courts.  Bukele has gotten results. Homicides are down by over 52%. His approval ratings are north of 80% and his power grab, consolidating powers from the legislative, judicial, and electoral branches, is the envy of Latin American politicians running for elected office in crime-ridden countries in the region. His mastery of social media, combined with his “rule by spectacle” has made him the darling of those in the region seeking to escape from fear stalking their own neighborhoods.

Last month he announced his intention to seek another term, even though the constitution clearly does not permit successive terms and all his predecessors have honored the one-term rule. Notwithstanding, his hand-picked electoral council ruled that he can run. As a result of his popularity, an extraordinarily successful crackdown on gangs, and because of his control of all government institutions, Bukele is a hero to many in the Hemisphere’s political class. There is little doubt that he will win a second term. In Ecuador and Guatemala, both countries conducting general elections soon, several candidates have invoked the Bukele name as the gold standard for elected leadership and effective public security policies.

 Bukele’s success has come at great cost to essential democratic norms and standards. He removed the attorney general and replaced Supreme Court justices with loyalists. His state of emergency (extended 11 times) has enabled him to virtually eliminate due process. Tens of thousands are held incommunicado without charges. Family members are left with only vague assumptions of what may have happened to their loved ones. There is no legal due process in today’s El Salvador, where Bukele brooks no criticism nor dissent. To his critics he says, either embrace what I am doing or hand the country over to the gangs. Several noted journalists have departed the country, citing harassment from the government. Worse, Bukele has never talked about when and if he would ever return basic civil liberties.

While Bukele’s stock rises throughout the Hemisphere, the next country to succumb to “Bukelismo” and join the ranks of the autocrats may well be Ecuador, already on the endangered list as a U.S. ally in the region. Ecuador is one of the few countries in the Global South that has stood with the U.S. and other allies in imposing sanctions against Russia, but it has come at a great cost. Ecuador lost over $1.5 billion in exports that would have been sold to Russia in 2022.

Followers of Ecuador’s strongman, ex-President Rafael Correa, succeeded in assembling enough votes to impeach the sitting President. Before they could vote, President and staunch U.S. ally Guillermo Lasso moved to dissolve the Assembly. Under the constitution, the president must also resign. With surging crime and his popularity at a low ebb, Lasso decided not to run in the August elections. Long an island of tranquility in a tough neighborhood, sandwiched between Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has descended into rampant criminality at the hands of TCOs.

Ecuador recorded 4,539 murders in 2022, the highest murder rate in its history. Ecuador is now ranked 93rd out of 140 countries in terms of the rule of law. It is listed at 105 out of 180 counties in the 2021 Corruption Index. The spark seemed to have come from prison massacres, over 600 prisoners have been killed inside prison walls since 2019. Prisons have become operating bases for the drug trade. Last year 210 tons of drugs were seized by the authorities. Reminiscent of the TCO violence in Mexico, children as young as 13 are recruited by the gangs, and grisly beheadings and bodies hanging from bridges are all too common along the country’s coastline.

How did Ecuador get there? While weak institutions and lax policy are the root causes. The demobilization of the Colombian guerrillas operating out of northern Ecuador set off a free-for-all to control the movement of drugs in that area, an uptick in European demand for cocaine and loose visa requirements allowed members of TCOs, including the Albanian Mafia, to enter the country unimpeded, making common cause with local gangs. The country’s ports have become lucrative transshipment points for drugs bound for Europe. In the port cities of Guayaquil and Esmeraldas, where violence is most intense, massacres, targeted assassinations of police and public officials, and car bombs have become weekly occurrences.

Ex-President Correa’s hands-off approach to narco-trafficking during his 10 years in office enabled the drug trade to flourish. His view was that drug trafficking was the exclusive responsibility of the governments of drug-consuming nations. As a result, the country’s navy and army have been compromised by organized crime at the highest levels. The US Ambassador recently referred to “Narco-Generals” in the security services.  The Ambassador also raised the threat level for intending American tourists, urging increased caution due to civil unrest, crime, and kidnapping. Several cities along the coast were deemed no travel zones. Ecuador is on a slippery slope. The next level of advisory will urge Americans not to travel to the country.

Sentenced to eight years for corruption, Correa has been living in Belgium. He is seeking to return to the country, and if a surrogate wins in August, he will receive a pardon. Whether in the presidential palace or simply pulling the strings from behind, the return of Correa would be disastrous for the country, portending a further descent into Venezuelan-style chaos, lawlessness, and autocracy. 

Turning this around will not be easy or quick. It is not simply a matter of sacking a few bad apples in the military and police. Any effective national campaign should begin with a well-articulated crime-fighting strategy, with the recognition that adjustments will continuously be made over time. Security force leadership in the coastal hotspots would need to be completely replaced. Intelligence and counterintelligence fusion centers to collect all-source information on bad actors would need to be created. A heavily vetted strike force should be stood up to act on fusion center intelligence and a robust corps of inspectors given the responsibility of continuously rooting out compromised officers.

Beyond these measures, the key to success will be community buy-in. This trust will only be achieved through sustained government actions to protect those in the affected communities. Only then will the government begin to turn the tide against the gangs. While vital to any success, there should be a recognition that trust will only be earned over time by deed, steady community policing, not just empty pledges of community support. Finally, the next President of Ecuador will have to maintain a laser focus on security. For him/her it must trump all other pressing priorities.

This can be done. Ecuador’s neighbor to the north eviscerated armed and criminal groups and eventually brought many of those to peace negotiations. Criticisms of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe aside, his “Democratic Security” plan did more than efforts by any president before or after him to bring peace to the country.  Only when the uncontrolled excesses of Uribe’s police and military went unchecked, did he suffer a loss of credibility and an immovable constitutional barrier in his attempt to stay in power. 

Uribe’s success was a direct result of hundreds of visits with the locals of villages and towns in the most violent areas of the country. Uribe would target those rural towns that had been plagued by insurgent, paramilitary, drug cartel, and gang violence for decades. After the town and its environs had been secured by the security forces, his initial meetings would begin by apologizing on behalf of his and previous Colombian governments to the assembled for not fulfilling the primordial obligation of the state…that is the provision of public security. This is as opposed to excoriating them for cooperating with bad actors. He vowed never to abandon the town again. Uribe would then conduct a town meeting to discuss public works that would be generated by the community itself. Project agendas were then drawn up, and subsequent visits by Uribe would review progress. The local police were instructed to hand out cell phones to those that would anonymously report the activities and movements of bad actors. With the continued protection of the security forces, local self-rule re-established, jobs created through public works, and ubiquitous cell phone reports, the bad actors had no place to hide.

He achieved all this, while at the same time, remaining within the constitutional parameters of due process and accountability. While the circumstances of Colombia and Ecuador’s criminal instability are not identical, much can be learned from Uribe’s phenomenally successful strategy and tactics to win hearts and minds and restore trust in the government.

Salvadoran President Bukele spares no effort to taunt the U.S., saying that our brand of democracy promotion is outmoded and sclerotic. He cites our plague of mass shootings as yet another reason why we are failing our own citizens. He repeatedly questions the U.S. standing to promote democracy or public security best practices. He is winning adherents in the region. But we can prove him wrong when effective measures to combat organized crime can be brought about under a democratic framework. Indeed, experience shows that when communities feel safe from criminal retribution, democracy can flourish, starting at the grassroots.

There is a strong consensus in the Senate for U.S. support to end the bloodletting in Ecuador. The Senate U.S.-Ecuador Partnership Act of 2022, passed out of committee unanimously, seeks to strengthen ties between our two countries. It directs the Department of State to develop and implement strategies to increase the capacity of Ecuador’s beleaguered justice system and law enforcement agencies in an effort to combat crime, corruption, and “the harmful influence of malign foreign and domestic actors”.

For the U.S. and the other global democracies there must be a long-overdue recognition that, while citizens in failing states may abstractly value democracy, rampant criminality has set their houses on fire. And in the midst of the inferno, they will elect leaders who will put the fire out. The U.S. and other like-minded democracies have an obligation to assist Ecuador in combatting criminality while preserving essential civil liberties. Enduring democratic leadership in Ecuador and the world will have to bring both effective law enforcement and civil liberties to douse the fire. If in August Ecuador elects such a responsible and committed leader, one that can work with the U.S. and our democratic allies, we should respond with substantial security assistance, to include equipment and training. This is not just Ecuador’s fight. Democracy is at stake. 

Ambassador (Retired) John Feeley is the Executive Director of the Center for Media Integrity of the Americas. He is a former career U.S. diplomat who served as Ambassador to Panama, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Charge d’Affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Mexico, in addition to other postings in Latin America and the Caribbean. He is a former Marine Corps Officer.

Ambassador (Retired) Peter F. Romero is currently the Producer and Co-host of the very popular podcast American Diplomat. He has been a consultant and advisor to several governments and private entities on community-based security strategies. As a career Foreign Service Officer, he was the Assistant Secretary of State, who initiated the successful Plan Colombia, US Ambassador to Ecuador, as well as several other assignments in Latin America over a career that spanned 25 years.  

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