Ecuador — once regarded as one of the safest countries in Latin America — has been overcome by drug-related violence in recent months. Now, much of the public is rallying behind the strongman policies of newly elected President Daniel Noboa.
Since declaring a national emergency last month, Noboa has flooded Ecuador’s streets with troops to combat a surge of homicides and drug trafficking. Since then, more than 6,000 people have been arrested, and hospitals are reporting a significant decrease in gunshot wound patients, the New York Times reported. The government’s swift crackdown has helped Noboa’s administration reach a 76% approval rating.
But many observers are comparing Noboa’s hardline security decisions to that of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, with human rights activists warning that Noboa is walking a thin line that could ultimately erode democracy like Bukele has in El Salvador.
Noboa stresses he’s different from Bukele, but they have ‘more similarities than differences’
Noboa has publicly acknowledged that his recent policy decisions have mirrored Bukele’s crime crackdown over the last year. In January, he even joked about whether Ecuador’s new maximum security prisons will be bigger than El Salvador’s, Argentina’s Télam website reported. But Noboa has stressed that his country’s problems can only be solved “the Ecuador way…not the El Salvador way,” framing his strongman approach as enhancing — not fighting — democracy by wiping out corruption and voter intimidation. But Noboa and Bukele “have more similarities than differences,” wrote journalist Daniela Maggi for Ecuavisa, arguing that Noboa has essentially copied Bukele’s primary (and widely controversial) tactic of searching for and arresting young men with tattoos, which has already lead to complaints of mass, unjustified imprisonment.
Turn toward authoritarianism may only flame violence
There are important security differences between El Salvador and Ecuador, which mean that “Bukele’s model isn’t exportable,” journalist Jordana Timerman argued for The Guardian. Unlike El Salvador’s impoverished gangs, Ecuador is dealing with transnational cartels that are richer and better armed. Timerman compares the situation to Honduras, where violence spread beyond metropolitan hotspots after President Xiomara Castro also mimicked Bukeke’s policies, largely because well-funded gangs can still bribe corrupt police. Analysts have also noted that Noboa has not outlined any clear strategy for what would happen once the state of emergency is lifted, Timerman reported.
China’s influence in Latin America is growing
Beijing’s growing influence in Latin America is undeniable, with China last year becoming Ecuador’s largest non-oil trading partner. But China has also taken a keen interest in the region’s security crisis: The country has funneled millions into police training and surveillance operations, filling a civilian security void left by the United States, Foreign Policy reported last year. And Beijing last month formally endorsed Noboa’s state of emergency plan. Bukele has also touted the millions of dollars in Chinese investment that has flowed into El Salvador, helping build flashy new stadiums and food programs for the poor, which helped Bukele get re-elected earlier. As violence increased in parts of Latin America, many people there now believe “an autocracy like China could solve the urgent problems of the population,” Laureano Perez Izquierdo, director of Argentina’s Infobae newspaper, told Reporte Asia.