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Updated Jan 10, 2024, 11:00am EST
South America
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Chaos in Ecuador as gang violence soars

Insights from El País, The Cuenca Dispatch, and The Economist

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Police officers stand in formation on Jan. 8 outside El Inca prison following riots that broke out after the leader of the Los Choneros criminal group escaped.
REUTERS/Karen Toro
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The News

Ecuador has been rocked this week by explosions, gang leaders escaping from jail, prison riots breaking out, the kidnapping and killing of police, and the storming of a TV studio during a live broadcast. In response to the wave of gang-related violence, President Daniel Noboa ordered drug trafficking gangs to be “neutralized” and designated 20 of the groups as terrorist organizations.

Quito said the chaos was a reaction to plans for a new high security prison where jailed gang leaders could be transferred, Reuters reported. Prison transfers and gang wars over cocaine smuggling routes have long fueled violence in the country, but this outbreak has some Ecuadorians questioning whether recently elected Noboa can handle the turmoil.

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Ecuador is modeling its crime crackdown on El Salvador’s controversial method

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Sources:  
The Telegraph, El País

Noboa said last week that Ecuador plans to build two new maximum security prisons modeled on those created by El Salvador’s controversial leader, Nayib Bukele, The Telegraph reported. The Ecuadorian president said these new facilities would be “identical” to those in El Salvador.

One security analyst told El País that for these prisons to be effective, Ecuador would also need to follow El Salvador’s example in creating “a system of permanent state of exception,” which suspended basic rights like freedom of speech and freedom to protest. But as it stands, the Noboa government “has no clear idea of how to put into practice many of the ideas that it came up with during the campaign,” the analyst said.

Drugs are fueling rising violence across Latin America

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Sources:  
The Economist, The Council on Foreign Relations

Latin American countries that have historically been relatively safe – including Ecuador, Chile, and Costa Rica – are now being ravaged by violence. “Call it the new narco network: a cocktail of drugs, guns and migration is fuelling gang violence across the region,” The Economist reported. Part of the issue is how fractured the drug trade became during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to experts at the Council on Foreign Relations. “When you have one big cartel that dominates a country, you tend to see on average less violence,” said a fellow for Latin America studies at CFR. “What we have today is the opposite situation.”

Gangs control Ecuador’s prisons, so guards were likely complicit in leader’s escape

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Sources:  
The Cuenca Dispatch, El País

Security analysts said the nation’s most notorious drug lord, who escaped from prison on Sunday, likely had help from the inside. The disappearance of José Adolfo Macías Salazar is evidence of the grip organized crime has on Ecuador’s criminal justice system, they told The Cuenca Dispatch.

Gangs are running drug trafficking operations and ordering hits from inside the prisons, El País reported, and some even have keys to their own cells. “This is all done under the protection of the state,” the outlet reported. The prison from which Salazar escaped is where this security crisis began in 2021 during a massacre in which 79 prisoners were beheaded. The crisis has only escalated since, with none of Ecuador’s past three governments able to wrangle control.

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