EcuadorJanuary 2024: security crisis and political legitimacy

Although the events are fresh – they occurred on January 9, 2024 – it is likely that we are witnessing a turning point in Ecuadorian security policy. As the media recognized, with the news having made headlines in the international press, President Daniel Noboa has declared a State of Exception and the existence of an “armed conflict” throughout the territory of his country.

State of Exception and Human Rights

As a first feature, it is necessary to close ranks around the legally established institutions. The political differences, procedural variances, discussion on operational movements of the police and army can wait. However, it is not that law enforcement agencies have a blank check, total impunity to act. When seeing the cruelty with which the terrorists acted, it is normal to encourage quick, forceful solutions. True.

But it is necessary to distinguish the capacity of paramilitary groups and how to confront them. Effectiveness is demanded, but the observable limits in conflicts also matter, references according to International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

Based on a quick analysis, it is recognized that the trigger for the events of Tuesday, January 9, 2024, in Ecuador would have been the escape of “Fito,” the leader of the Choneros, an important paramilitary group. The movements of the criminals would have occurred with the purpose of diverting and occupying the operational capacity of the security forces. Terrible to see armed prisoners having police and prison uniforms kneel, within immediate distance of fatal shots.

It is crucial to take into consideration how the prisoners took over six prisons, in addition to the fact that an armed group entered the facilities of the TC television channel. It is a demonstration of force, the challenge of a paramilitary group that – with the resources of drugs and extortion – imposes its presence in Ecuador.

The worst crisis in history

Another important fact is that Ecuador is experiencing the worst security crisis in its history. It was precisely the year 2023, just concluded, when there was the highest number of homicides, the prison population has increased significantly and disputes over new drug trafficking routes are behind this widespread phenomenon of violence.

President Novoa has declared a State of Exception. Something that is becoming normal, part of the landscape in this South American country. In fact, the previous President Guillermo Lasso decreed it twenty times.

However, now there is an aggravating factor: by recognizing the existence of an internal armed conflict, government can legally have the full mobilization of the army and the use of lethal weapons. This is where one of the risks lies, of having undesirable results in the death of innocents. And it is not about justifying as some do when they point out: “I was just doing my job”, “they are collateral damage”.

An extremely key issue in all of this is determining the source of resources on which these powerful armed groups operate. We all know. These incomes are rooted in the stratospheric levels of profitability with which they operate in the drug business. Which originates, among other factors -the problem is more complex- in the demand for the products.

A threat for Latin American and Caribbean region.

Given the current scenario, it is possible to maintain that Ecuador has become a specific key region, where at least 5 drug trafficking routes intersect. Cocaine is especially mentioned towards the areas of demand: the United States and Europe. The fight would be taking place between Mexican cartels and the Albanian mafia, as researcher David Gómez points out.

This lucrative drug trafficking business imposes a challenge beyond the borders of the countries. One of the text cases for this phenomenon would be precisely Ecuador. This transnational feature would require a joint strategic approach. Not doing so is creating a scenario of operational and legal divisions, with different medium and long-term measures by different countries which could even be contradictory. This would reduce the required levels of effectiveness.

Moreover, situations that had no precedent, such as the live recording of a television channel. This shows alarming levels at which these groups operate outside the law. Fortunately, so far no fatalities have been reported at the aforementioned television station.

Another aspect to consider, the young President Daniel Novoa (1987 -) must now endure strong pressures based on effective procedures and immediate results. He took power of the Executive two months ago, given the early departure of Guillermo Lasso. The current president will be in that position for 18 months.

Again, it is necessary to support, with the benefit of the doubt, the security forces. It is about not leading to abuse, knowing that the entire scenario and dynamic can result in unforeseen repercussions. It is to operate avoiding abruptly changes of direction.

It is necessary that the actions contain a strategy that includes the capacity of criminal groups, supply factors, key routes, and response capacity. For now, as it could not be otherwise, hopeful promises have been promulgated by several political actors; it is to be hoped that they are not based on errors of assessment. Ecuador, with its current crisis, continues to be a warning case for other countries in the Latin American and Caribbean region.


  • Gabriel Lerner

    Founder and co-editor of Latino Los Angeles. Editor Emeritus of La Opinion, former Editor-in-Chief. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a journalist, columnist, blogger, poet, novelist, and short story writer. Was the editorial director of Huffington Post Voces. Editor-in-chief of the weekly Tiempo in Israel. Is the father of three grown children and lives with Celia and with Rosie, Almendra and Yinyit in Los Angeles.

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