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Ecuador In Crisis: An Escaped Drug Lord, National Emergency And Struggling Leadership

Ecuador has recently been thrown into international limelight after declaring a 60-day state of emergency on January 7, 2024. This decision was taken due to a sharp increase in violence in prisons and the escape of gang leader, Adolfo Macias.



Adolfo Macias, known as ‘Fito’, is the leader of the ‘Los Choneros’ cartel, infamous for drug trafficking within the country. In response to the escape, two correctional officers were charged and there is still an ongoing investigation to find out how Macias escaped and his current whereabouts.  


The decision for a national emergency came in the wake of the new leadership under President Daniel Noboa. He is currently the youngest President of Ecuador and brought a series of promises with his new government. In his election campaign, he promised to revolutionise the country’s prison system and curb violence in towns and cities. He also spoke about ‘Plan Phoenix’, the details of which remain unclear.


Daniel NoboaDaniel Noboa


The call for the emergency was not made in haste. Despite, Macias’ escape from prison, it was the violence that ensued after his escape that caused Noboa to make the decision. On the day following Macias’ escape, armed gang members barged into a TC News (an Ecuadorian News Channel) studio, to broadcast their violence and make a public announcement.


After that, there was a coordinated campaign on Tuesday, January 9, 2023, when riots took place in hospitals, bombs were set off, over 30 people were murdered and multiple members of staff in prisons were taken hostage.


Ecuador, much like other countries in South America, is constantly in a struggle with the drug cartels that run operations within the country and often put civilians at risk. However, this is not a situation that Ecuador is used to. For most of the 21st century, Ecuador was one of the most peaceful nations in South America.


In the ‘90s, most of the drug-running in the country was done by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). They struggled against the Colombian government but their clash with the Ecuadorian government was minimal. This relatively stabilised the nation as it made drug running more of Colombia’s problem than Ecuador’s.


However, after the long struggle between FARC and Colombia, in 2016, they were demobilized. This created a power vacuum in the northern part of Ecuador. At the same time, the demand for cocaine surged overseas. Despite being unrelated, these two factors had deadly implications for Ecuador. Most significantly, it implied a need for control of port cities to ship cocaine.


The city that became the epicentre for all Venezuela and Colombian gangs to flood to in the absence of FARC was Guayaquil. In Ecuador, the ‘Los Choneros’ and ‘Los Lobos’ constantly vied for control of the city but still coexisted. However, in 2020, after multiple assassinations of various gang leaders, peace deteriorated.


This split between the cartels resulted in the foreign gangs being forced to take sides as well. This led to a turf war in Guayaquil and had devastating consequences for the country. Between 2018 and 2023, homicide rates in the country nearly quadrupled. There have also been surges of bombings and assassinations. More prominently, a presidential candidate, Fernando Villavencio, was assassinated after receiving multiple threats in August 2023.


Thus, after the events that took place, President Noboa declared several cartels as ‘terrorist’ organisations and mobilised the armed forces against them. He officially declared Ecuador to be in a ‘state of war’. The impacts of this are significant; socially, economically and politically.


Socially, the life of every single Ecuadorian citizen is disrupted. Many people that live in cities, like Guayaquil which are centres of gang violence and drug running, are at risk of getting caught in the crossfire between the armed forces and gang members. They are afraid of leaving their houses. Many people might ration their food so that they do not need to leave the house to get more, as seen in other curfews around the world. Social spaces such as restaurants and libraries would shut down due to a lack of business, as people would be too scared to leave their houses. The national emergency in Ecuador would essentially cause a societal shutdown because people would be fearing for their lives if violence escalates more than it already has. Additionally, people who can leave the country will choose to do so.


Alternatively, civil liberties such as freedom of assembly, press or speech being curtailed. It is important to note that whatever the outcome may be, it is clear to see that the lives of many Ecuadorians will be impacted unprecedentedly.


Economically, the state of emergency would slow down trade and also cause a huge downturn in business in the country. Since people would be staying at home, there would be minimal consumption of goods and services, even for the stores that are allowed to stay open according to the government’s regulations. This alludes to a decline in demand and would slow down business in the country. Additionally, if there is a slowdown in trade, it could mean that supply would diminish. This would mean that prices would go up, creating inflation. If not dealt with properly, this could even lead to hyperinflation. Additionally, foreign investment would reduce too, leading to a decrease in economic development and loss of employment for those who are hoping to go back to work after the emergency ends.


Politically, it gives President Noboa a mammoth of a task. He needs to maintain his approval with the Ecuadorian public, while successfully mobilising armed forces against drug cartels.


Many political experts, such as Rene Betancourt and Felipe Botero, have stated that this might not be the best strategy to deal with the problem in the country, but it is up to President Noboa to prove them wrong or rue the consequences. The fact that Ecuadorian citizens are also upset with cartel activities and want to put an end to the problem works in his favour. He must not just deal with cartels but also with the corruption within his government. Despite the 30 arrests that have already been made to combat corruption in an operation called ‘Caso Metastasis’ there is still a reset required of the system to weed out those working in collusion with the cartels.


Thus, the country’s crisis will have devastating impacts socially and economically. Politically, it remains to be seen what the President can aim to achieve with the armed forces against the cartels, and whether or not he is successful in his endeavours. For now, the Ecuadorian leadership is left scrambling to find a man whose escape has brought the country to its knees.

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