Opinion | Ecuador’s Crime Surge Is Devastating, but There Is a Way Forward

On Aug. 14, Pedro Briones, a congressional candidate and local political leader in Ecuador, was shot down. The assassination came less than a week after Fernando Villavicencio, a presidential candidate and vocal critic of corruption, was shot dead as he left a campaign rally in the country’s capital, Quito. The killings so close to Ecuador’s general election, scheduled for Sunday, have shocked Ecuadoreans and drawn global condemnation. The slayings show that no one — not even a presidential candidate — is safe in Ecuador.

Christian Zurita, an investigative journalist and a former colleague and close friend of Mr. Villavicencio, was chosen by their political party to run in his place.

What will happen next is uncertain, but it is clear that the nation’s intense political polarization will not help solve its crisis of violence.

The shooting of Mr. Briones is under investigation, and six Colombian nationals are being held in connection with Mr. Villavicencio’s killing. How the country’s criminal justice system handles the ongoing inquiries will be a litmus test for the nation. Ecuadorean politicians and their international partners will need to summon the political will and resources to complete an independent and thorough investigation into the killings. If the authorities prosecute just a few hit men and leave it at that, criminal groups will only grow more brazen. But if they take the longer, tougher road — rooting out and bringing to justice the masterminds behind the killings and exposing organized crime’s ties to parts of the state — the country may have a path back from the brink.

As a political scientist focused on Latin America, I have lived and worked in countries like Colombia and Guatemala, where decades ago gangs and organized criminal groups began sowing chaos as they grew more powerful. Although Ecuador historically dodged the narco-trafficking-fueled violence and internal armed conflicts that bedeviled its South American neighbors during the latter half of the 20th century, it has all the trappings of a drug traffickers’ paradise. It is sandwiched between Peru and Colombia, the world’s two largest producers of coca. And Ecuador’s economy has used dollars as the legal tender since 2000, making it attractive for money launderers.

The demobilization in 2017 of Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, which had long controlled Ecuadorean trafficking routes, created a vacuum that new cartels and gangs are now battling to fill. Earlier this year, I witnessed how the violence is rewriting the rules of daily life. Ecuador’s homicide rate is now the fourth highest in Latin America and extortion has risen to a startling rate. As a result, once-lively streets are now eerily empty and businesses have begun to close at nightfall. One day, I watched as a storekeeper and his patrons crowded around a smartphone to view — and applaud — clips of vigilante justice against suspected gang members. Many people I spoke to told me they planned to migrate. Since October, more than 77,000 have reached the U.S.-Mexico border: a nearly eightfold increase from 2020.

Policy blunders have left Ecuador ill-equipped to face the spiral of violence. Rafael Correa, a populist who served as the country’s president from 2007 to 2017, made the first serious missteps. It’s true that some measures put in place by his administration helped cut homicides to new lows. But Mr. Correa also eliminated the police unit for special investigations, closed a U.S. military base that supplied equipment to monitor its airspace and vast territorial waters and doubled the prison population, creating a breeding ground for gangs. His successors also made blunders.

President Lenín Moreno purged many of Mr. Correa’s appointees to the executive and judiciary, and won a referendum that reinstated presidential term limits scrapped by his predecessor. The judiciary opened investigations into corruption during the Correa years. Polarization flared between Mr. Correa’s supporters, who claimed they were victims of politicized justice, while critics like Mr. Moreno argued that they were rebuilding democratic checks and balances eroded under Mr. Correa. As that political melee played out, gangs turned Ecuador’s crowded prisons into their own command centers and began to infiltrate government institutions and armed forces.

Guillermo Lasso, Ecuador’s current president, has been locked in battle with Mr. Correa’s followers in the National Assembly, which Mr. Lasso dissolved by decree in May. Mr. Lasso has rolled out state emergencies and even put troops on the streets to fight the gangs and cartels. But criminal groups’ hold over the country has only grown. Alarmingly, Mr. Lasso’s brother-in-law — formerly one of his closest advisers — is under investigation for alleged ties to the Albanian mafia. In March, a businessman implicated in the case was found dead.

A supporter showing a flyer of Mr. Villavicencio during a protest a day after the candidate was assassinated.Carlos Noriega/Associated Press

Ecuador’s crime surge is transnational, with Mexican cartels, Colombian and Venezuelan groups and the Albanian mafia all vying to control the nation’s drug trade and weaken the state. While charting a path forward may seem daunting, it’s not impossible. To curb the power of organized crime and violence, the authorities need to root out corruption, investigate ties to local and national politicians and pursue their money launderers and contacts in the state.

This is a tall order for a country whose institutions are increasingly co-opted by crime. It will require ongoing cooperation and courage on the part of the country’s police, prosecutors, judges and politicians. But it has been done before. Colombia could be a model. Beginning in 2006, that nation’s government began taking steps to investigate, prosecute and sentence over 60 members of Congress who aided and abetted drug-trafficking paramilitaries.

President Lasso has invited the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Colombian police to assist in the investigation of Mr. Villavicencio’s killing. But for the effort to be truly effective, the cooperation on this case and others must continue into the next administration and beyond, regardless of who wins this Sunday.

Ecuador’s leaders must resist the temptation to delegate the anti-crime fight entirely to the military, or to use firepower alone to beat back the cartels and gangs. That approach has proved ineffective in countries like Mexico, and has often made the violence worse. Instead, Ecuador’s leaders must support independent prosecutors, judges and the police.

Ecuador’s armed forces, one of the nation’s most trusted institutions, is not designed to lead criminal investigations, track down money launderers or expose corrupt public servants. Those are jobs for civil institutions, like the police and judiciary. While these institutions are not immune to corruption and politicization among its ranks, they are not beyond saving.

Polarization has carved deep rifts between Mr. Correa’s supporters and his opponents, including Mr. Villavicencio. In the last week, politicians on both sides have resorted to blaming one another for the deteriorating security situation. To move forward, they must unite behind a shared purpose — to investigate criminal groups’ ties to public officeholders without seeking to shield members of their own camp. Whoever wins the upcoming presidential election must look beyond political divisions and put country over party.

Mr. Villavicencio’s killing marks an inflection point. But there is still time to act before the country progresses farther down the path Colombia and Mexico have traveled. It is what Mr. Villavicencio would have wanted.

Will Freeman is a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He focuses on understanding why developing democracies succeed or fail to end impunity for grand corruption.

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