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Shifting Strategy: Ecuador's Bold Response to Organised Crime
In recent years, Ecuador has become entangled in a rising tide of violence, predominantly fuelled by the worldwide demand for cocaine. Situated as a crucial nexus for trans-shipment and export of drugs from Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has transformed into a hub for criminal collaboration. Local gangs seamlessly align with Mexican and Colombian cartels, as well as the Albanian mafia, wielding considerable influence in the organised crime landscape.
The criminal collaboration among various groups has driven crime rates in Ecuador to unprecedented levels, eclipsing the homicide rates of traditionally recognised Latin American hotspots like Mexico and Brazil.
In August 2023, presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated. He had previously reported threats from Adolfo "Fito" Macías, the incarcerated leader of Los Choneros, a notorious gang linked to the Sinaloa Cartel. On January 7th, Fito escaped from prison in Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city and chief port.
In response, President Noboa ordered a nationwide “state of emergency” lasting 60 days. This endowed the military with augmented powers, granting them authority to enter prisons and collaborate with the police. Moreover, a nationwide curfew was imposed, restricting movement from 11 PM to 5 AM.
Despite these stringent measures, violence persisted with dire consequences: several police officers were murdered, others were abducted, prison guards were taken hostage in several prisons, and explosions reverberated across Ecuador. The chaos climaxed on January 9th, as gunmen seized control a prominent public TV channel, TC, during a live broadcast.
President Noboa responded with resolute action: a decree that officially acknowledged the existence of an “internal armed conflict” – a historic first for Ecuador. This decree invoked the application of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), commonly known as the laws of war. The presidential stance contends that these criminal groups transcend mere lawbreaking; they are deemed non-state “belligerent actors.” Consequently, 22 criminal organisations have been designated as terrorists.
In the contemporary landscape marred by prison violence, explosive attacks, and premeditated actions of organised crime, it is critical to examine the implications of this Presidential Decree comprehensively across its legal, rhetorical, and tactical dimensions.
Characterising the fight against the 22 organised crime groups as a non-international armed conflict does not align with the principles of IHL, casting uncertainty on the application of the Rule of Law. Acknowledging organised crime as "belligerent entities" designates them as "military targets," granting the Armed Forces permission for their neutralisation. This empowerment includes actions such as firing, without being deemed a criminal act. Within this warlike logic, members of organised crime groups become legitimate targets under the laws of war.
Another ramification involves the potential for "collateral damage" resulting from legitimate military operations in the war context – unintended impact of civilians or non-military assets. Additionally, this situation may open a door to instances of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture, and ultimately, war crimes.
Use of bellicose language carries the potential to mobilise the populace, confer credibility to the government, and secure increased resources. The strategic efficacy of such language demands, however, careful evaluation to mitigate unintended consequences. This rhetoric resonates with the public's yearning for decisive action against criminals, positioning it as a politically expedient move.
Engaging in an asymmetric "war" against organised crime presents substantial challenges, particularly in resource, military power, and strategic imbalances. The initiation of a "war" implies a potential depletion of military resources unless measures are implemented to disrupt the criminal groups' supply chains for weapons, ammunition, and financing.
The urban nature of the conflict introduces novel challenges, shifting from historically remote border conflicts in the rainforest to densely populated urban areas, including prisons. These confrontations heighten the risk of "collateral damage." Preparing law enforcement for urban combat demands specialised equipment, ranging from protective gear to non-lethal weapons and communication devices.
Conclusion: The Balanced Approach
Analysing the Ecuadorian government’s security response requires a nuanced approach, encompassing legal, communicational, and tactical-military implications. Legal considerations highlight the divergence from established international norms, necessitating a critical review of the declared armed conflict. Rhetorically, President Noboa’s bellicose discourse requires careful calibration to avoid unintended consequences, ensuring that public support aligns with both legality and beneficial outcomes. Tactically, urban combat demands specialised training, equipment, and strategic planning to mitigate risks and optimise law enforcement efficiency.
International cooperation becomes essential in procuring specialised military equipment and expertise, overcoming budgetary constraints. A reconsideration of resource allocation within the existing Government’s budget, exploration of international partnerships, and innovative financing models, including public-private partnerships, emerge as potential avenues. The inherent challenges demand a comprehensive, balanced, and internationally cooperative approach to ensure societal security.
Rene is an Ecuadorian lawyer and political analyst with extensive national and international experience. Recognised expert in the realms of counter-terrorism and disarmament affairs. Holds two Master's degrees in International Criminal Law and Crime Prevention, and International Relations. Passionate lecturer in various university subjects, International Criminal Law, International Law, Human Rights, Legal Argumentation, Government Systems, and Foreign Policy.