Soldiers in riot gear arrive after street merchants protested the seizure of their merchandise by the municipal police of Quito, Ecuador, in May 2020. Image: AP Photo/ Dolores Ochoa

Unpacking Ecuador’s Internal Conflict and Violence

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“Love casts out fear; but conversely fear casts out love. And not only love. Fear also casts out intelligence, casts out goodness, casts out all thought of beauty and truth. What remains in the bum or studiedly jocular desperation of one who is aware of the obscene; and in the end, fear comes to expel from man humanity itself.”

Aldous Huxley

Ecuador’s recent spike in internal violence has thrust the nation into the global spotlight, challenging its long-standing reputation as an ‘island of peace’ in a region marked by conflicts and tensions. The roots of this troubling trend reflect a profound complexity with interconnected causes that include decades of ineffective governance plagued by corruption, a persistent economic crisis fueled by relentless reliance on extractive models, and the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in one of the largest exodus of Ecuadorians in recent history.

These structural challenges have fostered an environment conducive to the proliferation of illegal and violent activities, such as drug trafficking, illegal mining and logging, human trafficking, and wildlife trafficking, among others. These criminal enterprises exploit a population deprived of opportunities for a dignified life, institutional corruption, and a weakened state, all contributing to the growth of criminal economies, the only ones to thrive in the country. 

The current crisis is not merely a local issue but is intrinsically linked to a global neoliberal and capitalist model that favors and perpetuates economic and social inequality. Transnational criminal structures exploit the gaps left by these policies to expand their operations and consolidate their power, with devastating consequences for local communities, their territories, and the environment. Addressing what is happening in Ecuador would require tackling these issues as they transcend national borders and can only be resolved by halting the cycle of violence and structural inequality both in Ecuador and other ‘peripheral’ countries. The current situation in Ecuador demands a coordinated and effective response both nationally and internationally to safeguard communities and territories in the region from an uncertain and highly dangerous future.

Image: Crisis Group

Becoming one of the most violent nations in both the region and the world is a process that evolves over time, influenced by a multitude of factors that compound year after year. This environment cultivates criminal networks capable of exploiting a fragile and ineffective state apparatus. While it’s crucial not to oversimplify the complexities at play, it’s evident that a range of causes contribute to the institutional and societal deterioration witnessed in Ecuador today. These root issues extend beyond the scope of any single administration or entity.

Global dynamics, such as the profitability of illicit drug trade and the demand for valuable natural resources, play significant roles, in bolstering paramilitary groups in countries like Ecuador. The internal structural problems also play a significant role including the country’s dollarization of the economy, which has facilitated its use as an ideal ground for money laundering, alongside fragile and corruptible institutions. In addition, an ongoing economic crisis exacerbates social welfare disparities, perpetuating illegal networks that exploit individuals in situations of extreme poverty without opportunities.

In both national and some international media, an idea that has been put forward is that this escalation of violence stems from the expulsion of a US military base in Manta (on the Ecuadorian coast) in 2009, which supposedly left criminal structures unchecked. However, besides the fact that the nearly ten-year presence of the United States resulted in various accusations of human rights violations, this narrative doesn’t correlate with the data. In fact, crime rates significantly decreased in the ten years following the expulsion of the US base.

What can be verified from official data is that following the pandemic in 2021, violent death rates exponentially increased, unlike ever before in Ecuador’s history. This occurred after Ecuador had experienced four years of neoliberal policies and fiscal austerity. For example, the gradual dismantlement of the state has been evident through the closure of ministries, institutions, and public companies, massive layoffs of public servants due to budget cuts in education, health, and social welfare, the prioritization of external debt payment amid a health crisis, and the reduction of subsidies. This happened concurrently with the loss of control by the state, perhaps deliberately, over criminal groups, leading Ecuador to become the most violent country in Latin America in 2023.

This harsh reality has instilled widespread fear in Ecuadorian society like never before in its history, exacerbated by a public opinion that daily reinforces a narrative of panic, perpetuating a deep-seated atmosphere of generalized fear among citizens. This has been seized upon by the current government of Ecuador to justify, unquestionably, the “sacrifices” and “war” as the only possible mechanisms to tackle outbreaks of violence. Regrettably, due to this climate of fear, even more unpopular neoliberal policies are now being implemented without room for questioning. This is being done by an interim government that will only serve a term of 18 months, but which in the first four months has already raised VAT, prioritized external debt repayment, and executed a plan for further reduction of the state apparatus, including the consequent privatization of public enterprises, the approval of free trade agreements, and the auctioning of the country to new mining capital, among other shock policies.

While the actual figures of the levels of violence reached in Ecuador are chilling, the narratives and fear-mongering images that are being disseminated are even more striking and have managed to instill a “shock” in society. An excellent example was the mediatization of a supposed “takeover” of a television channel on January 9th by criminal or terrorist groups. It was precisely this sensationalized action that formally justified the declaration of an “internal war” in Ecuador, leading to an escalation of many other systemic forms of violence that are becoming widespread. Examples of these include xenophobia, fear of the poor, femicides, gender-based discrimination, and especially the devaluation of the humanistic principles that helped pacify humanity in the post-World War II era, to prevent such atrocities from happening again.

An Ecuadorean journalist was held hostage by gunmen during the takeover of a Guayaquil TV station and obliged to appear on camera at gunpoint on 10 January 2024.

Today, human rights violations are justified in many ways in Ecuador through the narrative of war. Arbitrary detention of citizens based on their appearance, skin color, or tattoos has been observed, as well as restrictions on access to medication for people with severe or complicated illnesses in detention centers. There have even been reports of the murder of a young man in Guayaquil at a traffic checkpoint without any justification. The Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights has denounced the armed forces for the illegitimate use of force, which could constitute torture. However, all these abuses are justified as part of the “internal war against organized crime.”

As President Noboa stated: “Let no unpatriotic person come and tell us that we are violating anyone’s rights when we are defending those of the vast majority.”

History has shown us that fear is the most effective fuel for demobilizing and paralyzing societies. Moreover, through fear, the most perverse and unpopular policies have been instated in various parts of the world at different times in human history, even within democracies. Naomi Klein eloquently explained this phenomenon in her 2007 book ‘The Shock Doctrine.’ While Ecuador is currently experiencing the consequences of both criminal violence and the implementation of neoliberal policies that ultimately result in structural violence, it’s important to acknowledge that this is not just a problem in Ecuador. Rather, it’s a symptom stemming from global structures and paradigms that have become consolidated in the present day.

Today, even democratically elected presidents question the universality of Human Rights, as seen in the cases of Nayib Bukele, Javier Milei, or Ecuador’s own President Noboa. Distorted concepts of “freedom” (especially freedom of the market), for example, often take precedence over democracy or Human Rights themselves.

The business of war, with the drug trade as a key driving force, is highly profitable and exponentially fueled by the expansion of economic and cultural patterns that align with it. We can learn this from experiences in Colombia, Mexico, or Central America. According to Omar Rincón (2023), “the narco is Colombian and Ecuadorian by fate, but capitalist by ethics”. The horrors Ecuador is currently experiencing are not worse than those faced, and in many cases still being endured, by neighboring countries. They are certainly not comparable to genocides like the ongoing one against the Palestinian people as these lines are being written, or all the genocides that have occurred just in the last two centuries.

Undoubtedly, Ecuador is going through its worst historical juncture, but it’s important to identify the patterns replicated in the implemented social and economic models, which are largely related to the capitalist model of free market and “development” in general as a paradigm of infinite growth. Essentially, we are building a world where there is more freedom to sell than to eat, or where a commodity is valued more than a human being. It’s a dehumanized world, and it’s the world of our times—we must accept it. We must accept it even more if we want to change it. Acknowledging means seeing the shadows and understanding the complex reality in which we exist.

Ecuador needs to look inward, recognize its reality, and attempt to break free from dependence on these models of death, seeking to re-exist with hope for better times. Being a country rich in life due to its biodiversity is perhaps the only non-violent way out for Ecuador to re-exist, a commitment that has seen significant progress recently with overwhelming popular support and through genuinely democratic processes (such as Rights of Nature and anti-extractive popular consultations).

This presents a possible future, perhaps the only one as a nation. However, it is not enough for Ecuador to heal its wounds, pacify itself, and become a terrestrial paradise; it is also necessary for the world to transform itself comprehensively. It is imperative to stop globally feeding these industries of death and to empower activities that dignify and prioritize life. As Jacinto Benavente said, “One thing is to continue the story, and another is to repeat it”. The way things are going, it is clear that if the history of humanity is a snake, it will always end up eating its own tail. Perhaps there is no time left to repeat this story, and all we have left is to transform the snake into a snail.

The article is also available in Spanish.

Juan Manuel Crespo

Juan is a PhD candidate in Development Studies at the University of the Basque Country. He is dedicated to eco-social action research, particularly in topics related to buen vivir (good living), political ecology, alternatives to development, and the management of knowledge from decolonial perspectives. He has contributed to various collaborative research projects such as the FLOK Society project for participatory design of public policies for knowledge at the IAEN. He has served as an advisor to the Government of Ecuador on open knowledge and free technologies and also serves as a consultant for WWF Ecuador.

1 Comment

  1. Amazing article for someone from out side trying to understand what is going on in Ecuador. Very elucidative and well written.

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