Explaining and Predicting Ecuador’s Security Crisis

As the violence spirals out of control, we analyze the implications for Ecuador, its government, and narco-trafficking across the region.


Source: Karen Toro/Reuters.

On January 7, Ecuadorian police announced that Los Choneros gang leader Adolfo “Fito” Macías had escaped from prison as he was about to be transferred to a maximum security facility. As news spread of the disappearance of Macías, who ran Ecuador’s most powerful gang from behind bars for the past three years, gang members took over prisons, attacked law enforcement, and even seized a television station mid-broadcast. Fabricio Colón Pico, head of Ecuador’s second largest gang, Los Lobos, escaped in the following days, leading to rising fears of all-out gang warfare.

In response, Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa declared an “internal armed conflict” against the gangs, which he labeled “terrorists.” Military officials have stated their intent to “neutralize” nearly 20,000 so-called terrorists, and hundreds of suspected criminals have already been arrested. As the violence spirals out of control, we analyze the implications for Ecuador, its government, and narco-trafficking across the region.


Q1: What are the chances that Ecuador turns into a narco-state, and is this a problem for the United States?

In many respects, Ecuador, especially its coastal cities, already reflects several narco-state characteristics.

While not a significant cocaine producer itself, Ecuador shares extensive land and sea corridors with Colombia and Peru—the world’s two largest cocaine producers. According to estimates, cocaine is Ecuador’s sixth-largest export, and the country’s major distribution hubs are among the most violent places in the Americas. Unless Ecuadorian policymakers take drastic measures to improve its rule of law, these trends will continue to worsen, with a high possibility of realizing full narco-state status within the next decade.

The escalating instability in Ecuador matters for the U.S. because of its implications for immigration and international cooperation. In 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) encountered four times more Ecuadorians than in 2022. Before former President Rafael Correa’s tenure, the U.S. cooperated with Ecuador through multiple channels. It is therefore encouraging that the U.S. will send top military and law enforcement officials to Ecuador in the coming weeks to offer short-term assistance to the Noboa government. 

This latest wave of instability bodes poorly for Ecuador’s desire to sign a free trade agreement with the U.S. However, ratifying such a deal could help Ecuador find markets and jobs for its small- and medium-sized businesses, with benefits that could assuage migration.  


Q2: President Noboa refers to the criminals as “terrorists.” Could this conflict conflate narco-trafficking and terrorist groups, as has been the case in Colombia?

The controversial ‘narco-terrorism’ label was coined in the 1980s to refer to acts of public violence by narco groups in Ecuador’s neighboring Peru and Colombia. After recent events in Ecuador, including the kidnapping or killing of nine police officers, the hostage-taking or lynching of over 150 prison staff, and the temporary takeover of a television station, it seems clear that the current crisis meets the criteria.

On Tuesday, Noboa issued Decree 111, declaring war on 22 gangs in the country and defining them as terrorists rather than criminals. In effect, this decree gives the military, rather than the police, responsibility for combating gangs and authorizes lethal force. Critics have warned that it risks enabling a mass incarceration system like El Salvador’s or mass targeting of civilians as occurred under Colombia’s U.S.-backed “Plan Colombia.”

While the escalation does pose a potential risk to human rights in Ecuador, it remains to be seen whether increased military involvement will result in a broad crackdown or a more limited approach. Coordination with security partners such as Colombia, Peru, the U.S., and Israel may help limit violence by providing Ecuador with more resources and advanced technology to target stabilization efforts.


Q3: Could other narco groups across the region see Ecuador as a model to emulate? 

The security crisis in Ecuador is driven by conflicts between gangs, drug cartels, and narcotics groups opposing the government, as well as internal conflicts within these criminal organizations. The government’s main focus is on drug gangs like Los Choneros, Los Lobos, and Tiguerones, which have significantly grown in recent years. To address violence and overcrowding in prisons, Noboa plans to use prison ships and build two new maximum-security prisons based on the model used in El Salvador. Much of the recent violence is believed to be a reaction to that.

Drug trafficking groups from Colombia, Peru, and Mexico are closely monitoring the situation. Ecuador’s high ratio of cocaine per capita, combined with its geography and corruption issues, has made it a hotspot for transnational organized crime, creating an attractive model for other narco groups in the region. Ecuadorian criminal groups’ use of violence for political goals has also attracted interest from narco groups in other countries who see them as successful tactics. The potential for controlling profitable drug routes through ports like Guayaquil increases the appeal of emulating Ecuadorian criminal groups’ methods. It seems possible that narco groups from other regions may try to imitate some of these tactics. This could lead to an increase in cross-border collaborations and the spread of similar violence and criminal activities in the region. Criminal groups from Colombia and Mexico, such as the Sinaloa and the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartels, which operate in Ecuador, have the most to benefit from the situation. 


Q4: Could Noboa’s limited political experience be a contributing factor to the current situation?

Ecuador became an important trafficking center after former President Rafael Correa’s 2008 decision to close the country’s U.S. air base, which monitored narco-trafficking in the region. His successors, Presidents Lenin Moreno and Guillermo Lasso, purged policing institutions and allowed narco-funded corruption to fester in the highest ranks of government. This institutional weakness made Ecuador susceptible to gang warfare after the dismantling of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) forced trafficking groups across the border.

Sparked by failed efforts to transfer Macías from a luxury prison under his control to a prison controlled by the state, the current wave of violence mirrors the aftermath of famous narco-terrorist escapes, such as those of Pablo Escobar in Colombia or El Chapo in Mexico, which led to gang-state warfare until they were captured or killed. Noboa also publicly opposed the luxuriant conditions provided to gang leaders in Ecuador’s prisons.

While it is plausible that Noboa’s limited experience led him to overestimate the ability of Ecuador’s prison agency to conduct the prison transfer or overstate his plans to upend the security status quo, the groundwork for the current crisis was laid before Noboa took office.


Q5: How will the situation unfold in the coming days and weeks, and will the authorities be able to stabilize the country?

It is clear that the cartels will not back down without a fight. The valuable networks they have carved out in Ecuador allow them privileged access to North American and European cocaine markets. On the other hand, Noboa wants to complete his term and avoid being painted as “Lasso 2.0,” as some of his political rivals have suggested.        

In the coming days, militarization is expected throughout the country, leading to an increase in detentions. Since Noboa declared an internal armed conflict, more than 350 alleged terrorists have been already detained. Difficulties addressing the ongoing prison crisis could further deteriorate the situation. Noboa’s initiative to build a maximum security prison in the Amazon, as part of the recently unveiled “Phoenix Plan,” is expected to face strong opposition from the country’s powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). 

Noboa’s administration will also have to deal with the country’s corrupt institutions. Ecuador’s judicial system remains weak, and oversight agencies have limited investigative capacity. The armed forces face mounting corruption allegations. It remains unclear whether the state can conduct the wide-reaching crackdown necessary to stabilize the situation. 

Internal conflicts in Colombia and Mexico show that dislodging narco-networks is no easy task. As gangs escalate in tandem with the government, things in Ecuador will likely get worse before they get better.    

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