By Alexandra Valencia
QUITO – Ecuador’s president, Guillermo Lasso, has used emergency powers to fight a crime wave he blames on drug gangs, but his efforts have changed little for Ecuadoreans and fail to confront the poverty and poor policing underlying the violence, analysts and citizens say.
Violent deaths – including during robberies and assaults – soared 53% to more than 2,000 through mid-November, compared with 1,361 during the whole of 2020, according to the president’s office. This prompted conservative Lasso to declare a state of emergency in October and to deploy hundreds of soldiers in violent areas.
Incidents of violent death are at their highest since at least 2011, according to the same figures.
Lasso – who took office in May – has blamed increasing bloodshed on drug mafias using the nation of close to 18 million as a transit point between producers in Colombia and Peru and buyers in the United States and Europe.
But analysts say surging crime is also due to economic hardship worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, including widespread use of informal labor, and a years-long weakening of state institutions under previous presidents that makes crime-fighting difficult.
The wave of violence comes as Lasso tries to position Ecuador as an investment destination for new energy and mining projects and shore up its battered economy amid a revised financing deal with the International Monetary Fund.
Mayra Villacreses, whose baker brother and 2-year-old nephew were gunned down last month by three hitmen in coastal Guayaquil despite the state of emergency, said criminals remain in control of the streets.
Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil tallies the most killings – averaging two a day, according to government statistics.
“Since they killed my brother I have a terrible fear of going out. They’ve given the green light to criminals to be on the streets,” said the 32-year-old, who believes her brother was killed by mistake. “President Lasso has not imposed a hard line.”
In the capital Quito, robberies of businesses climbed 17% between January and October this year compared with the same period in 2020, according to the Interior Ministry, while thefts of cars and motorcycles were also up.
The government says the state of emergency has reduced intentional homicides in and around Guayaquil by 22%, with the figure falling from 133 murders between late September and mid-October to 104 between mid-October and mid-December.
As it escalates its crackdown on the drug gangs, the government has said it will ask the legislature to approve the shooting down of unauthorized airplanes, longer sentences for gang leaders and progressive use of force in anti-narcotics operations, though none have yet won the approval of lawmakers.
Security forces say they carried out 230,000 operations during the first month of the state of emergency, breaking up 76 gangs, confiscating at least 16 tonnes of drugs and arresting nearly 7,000 people.
Total drug seizures so far this year have reached a record 190 tonnes.
“It’s a war situation: we’re Ecuador versus drug trafficking,” Pablo Arosemena, the governor of Guayas province, home to Guayaquil, told journalists at a news conference in November. “We are fighting and we are going to win, but we must do it united.”
But increasing crime cannot be attributed only to gangs, security analyst and university professor Daniel Ponton said. He cited deprivation exacerbated by the pandemic and budget cuts under previous administrations which weakened authorities’ ability to fight crime.
“There have been budget cuts; there have not been investments in certain areas of the police, like in crime prevention and investigation,” said Ponton.
“What will change (Ecuador’s) reality is public policy, which is long-term,” he said.
The leftist government of former president Rafael Correa, in office until 2017, created a new intelligence service that analysts and political rivals accuse of spying on his opposition. Correa’s successor, Lenin Moreno, closed that unit in 2018, creating another new entity.
“These changes produced a lack of state cohesion because when there are too many changes and you cannot coordinate adequately there is a weakening of all institutions,” said Luis Cordova, who heads the order, conflict and violence research program at Universidad Central.
“The intelligence work isn’t there.”
Both Lasso and the attorney general’s office have complained publicly that judges are too quick to release accused criminals.
“The justice apparatus and the ability to ensure laws are followed and people are not able to remain in impunity have been deteriorating,” Cordova said. “It is evident the justice system has an enormous joint responsibility in this situation.”
Longstanding economic informality stokes crime and complicates policymaking, Cordova said. A roaring trade in stolen goods like cell phones and car parts incentivizes theft and under-the-table commerce leaves officials without accurate economic data.
Poverty had risen to 32.2% by June this year, from 25.5% in the same month of 2019 because of long COVID-19 lockdowns, according to figures from the national statistics institute.
The government did not release data for 2020.
Though the state of emergency is set to end on Dec. 18, Lasso has said he is willing to extend it for as long as necessary.
The Constitutional Court may not allow it – it has already clipped Lasso’s wings, shortening his original emergency declaration from 60 days to 30, limiting it to only the most violent provinces and saying the military can only support police operations.
The court also chided Lasso over a separate emergency declaration meant to grapple with the crisis in the nation’s prisons, where more than 300 inmates have died this year, saying temporary actions will not be enough.
For Quito car dealer Edison Quishpe, government action is falling short.
“This won’t be resolved just with announcements about fighting drug trafficking, the president must do more,” said the 36-year-old, who days before was robbed of his phone, watch and cash by two men wielding a firearm.
“Ecuador has become a violent country.”