Ecuador on the Brink

On August 9, Ecuador’s Fernando Villavicencio, an anti-corruption presidential candidate, was shot dead after a rally in the capital city of Quito. It was just ten days before the presidential election.

The murder became the symbol of today’s Ecuador, a once-booming developing nation that has fallen into chaos due to a combination of political instability and the growing power of drug gangs linked to international cartels. This is a pivotal moment for Ecuador. The assassination could spur real political reform, or it could lead to further instability and bloodshed.

While the murder is still under investigation, most reports point toward a cartel-related hit, as Villavicencio was known for his anti-corruption activism. His campaign was built around criticisms of drug gangs and their dealings with Ecuadorian politicians. Villavicencio had mentioned he had received death threats from cartel members a few days before the shooting.

And, while Villavicencio was trailing in the polls (most polls put him between third and fifth position), his death changed everything in the election. With the support of Rafael Correa, the most important and controversial political figure in Ecuador, the leftist Luisa González was supposed to win by a landslide, perhaps not even needing a run-off to be proclaimed president. After the assassination, things got more complicated.

Whether the winner of the runoff turns out to be González or Daniel Noboa, the son of a banana mogul, he will receive a very different Ecuador. The country today seems closer to Colombia in the ’80s—where cartels dominated and political assassinations were common—than to the country many thought would become one of the economic powerhouses of Latin America.

But how did Ecuador become so politically unstable, and such a hotbed for international drug trafficking?

The Revolving Door and 21st-Century Socialism

Between the late ’90s and early 2000s, Ecuador had an unsteady record. Rampant corruption, abuse of the impeachment process, and the lack of coordination between political coalitions led the country through 8 presidents between 1996 and 2006.

Riding the “pink wave” of the 2000s, former minister of economy Rafael Correa would win the election in 2007 with the promise of applying twenty-first-century socialism, the formula popularised by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

Correa would use his newfound power to follow the Chávez formula and pressure Congress and the Supreme Court to hold a referendum to see if Ecuadorians would approve a constituent assembly to draft a new Constitution. They did.

The new Constitution made impeachment much harder, but a 2014 reform would allow Correa to be re-elected indefinitely as president.

However, despite Correa’s popularity and success in reducing poverty in Ecuador, pressure against his re-election was intense, and he opted instead to support his vice-president, Lenín Moreno, as a presidential candidate in 2016. Many thought Moreno would be Correa’s puppet.

They were wrong. Moreno quickly showed he had his own mind and in 2017 he and Correa had already fallen out. By 2018, Moreno had eliminated the re-election of the president, turned away from Correa’s international allies, such as Venezuela and Cuba, and pursued a conservative fiscal policy. He also started corruption investigations against Correa and many of his allies, which led to Correa’s self-imposed exile in Belgium.

But this also meant that Moreno was a man without a party—he could not enact many parts of his agenda. Then oil prices fell, and despite its fiscal austerity, the government debt increased. In 2019, Moreno proposed another package including the elimination of fuel subsidies, which ignited widespread protests throughout the country.

Murders doubled by the year, and prison massacres became more common. In 2021, over 380 inmates were killed in prison riots.

Ecuador had changed. It was a fractured country. The economy had deteriorated, and with Covid, things only got worse. Pressure also mounted with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan refugees fleeing the humanitarian crisis in their country. With the increase in poverty, crime also started to rise, slowly but surely.

Many of Ecuador’s poorer neighborhoods became the headquarters of drug gangs related to Mexican and Colombian cartels—and even the Albanian mafia. They would recruit unemployed, unskilled, disaffected young men while the government lost control of its prisons, which became the centers of operation for local cartels.

Mutual Death

One might have expected that economic stagnation, a highly unpopular president, and civil unrest would pave the way for a populist Ecuadorian president, especially considering that populists, left and right, were rising across Latin America.

It didn’t happen. A strange set of factors led to the victory of Guillermo Lasso, a former banker who had been a presidential candidate twice. Lasso ran on a free market platform, promoting job creation through liberalisation of the job market, foreign investment, and tax reduction.

However, Lasso faced a significant hurdle: the National Assembly was still controlled by Alianza PAIS, Correa’s party, and Lasso’s party only had 12 of 137 seats. Although Lasso was initially praised for his excellent vaccination campaign, his legislative limitations quickly became evident.

The effect of the 2019 protests really never waned. The indigenous federation that called for those protests took to the streets again in 2022, shortly after Lasso’s first anniversary in office, blocking roads and calling for a strike. Lasso did see some post-Covid recovery and economic success, with 3% GDP growth in 2022 and low inflation. However, he miserably failed on security. Murders doubled by the year, and prison massacres became more common. In 2021, over 380 inmates were killed in prison riots. The country’s homicide rate is 25 per 100,000 people, higher than Colombia and Mexico.

Lasso became one of the most unpopular presidents in Latin America. He was elected on a conservative platform but flip-flopped on abortion and LGBT issues; while he balanced the country’s finances, spending cuts deteriorated public services, and he could never really tackle the security issues nor reach agreements with a National Assembly that was controlled by the opposition.

All this led to the impression that Lasso was not doing anything. Ecuadorians were impatient, and the leftist opposition seized the opportunity. On March 3, 2023, an impeachment trial against Lasso was approved due to alleged corruption in the granting of public contracts. However, these contracts had been granted by the previous government of Lenín Moreno, not by Lasso.

Lasso seemed poised to follow the same fate of every Ecuadorian president before the 2008 constitution: a swift impeachment.

However, the 2008 Constitution did have a check and balance that was designed to make the Assembly think twice before going on with an impeachment: muerte cruzada (mutual death), which gives the president the power to dissolve the National Assembly and call for new legislative and presidential elections.

Lasso, seeing that the political ploy against him left him with no chance of overcoming the impeachment, activated the muerte cruzada on May 17 of this year and also announced he would not run for the snap presidential election, leaving the field wide open.

The Election

Between Lasso’s unpopularity, and the left’s return to the political landscape, it looked like Correa’s protegé, Luisa González, would have an easy path to victory.

But the death of Villavicencio, which happened after the last poll was published, made the election unpredictable. After all, Villavicencio was Correa’s enemy #1 during his presidency. Villavicencio became known as one of the most effective and credible anti-corruption journalists in the country, which led him to an 18-month prison sentence for allegedly slandering Correa in 2014 after revealing a corruption case. He fled the country, first going to the U.S., then returning while staying off the radar in the Amazon jungle, and then requesting political asylum in Peru. After returning for good to Ecuador, his case would finally be dismissed in 2018.

It is natural at this point to look toward Correa and his allies for Villaviencio’s death. Many of them had threatened him, and many of them had links with drug gangs, which led to suspicion. However, no proof of such a link has been found yet.

Nevertheless, the anti-Correa vote rose strong, propelling Daniel Noboa, who was in the single digits in the last polls, to the run-off, while Christian Zurita, who took Villavicencio’s party nomination, and Jan Topic, a new right candidate in the mold of Bolsonaro or Bukele, finished third and fourth, respectively. 

A few years ago, the country would have been shocked by talk of decapitations, car bombs, and children shot outside their schools. Now, they are a daily occurrence.

Topic already pledged his support to Noboa, while Zurita did not endorse him but said he would work with him, leading most of his supporters to support him. Otto Sonneholzner, Moreno’s former VP, finished fifth and, despite not giving Noboa his support directly, said that he would “never vote for socialism.” Some of the parties in his alliance already said they would support Noboa.

This puts González in a difficult situation. Zurita, Topic, and Sonneholzner accrued 37% of the vote, which, added to Noboa’s, is enough to defeat González by a wide margin.

A failed state?

But can Noboa or González put a stop to drug cartels in Ecuador or will it turn into the twenty-first-century version of Colombia, which became a failed state under Pablo Escobar, FARC, and other drug cartels?

The latter seems most likely. Since Moreno’s time, the government has declared war on cartels, but it has not worked as expected. It led to an exponential increase in the inmate population which jumped from 11,000 in 2009 to 40,000 in 2021. However, there was not a consistent prison policy to allow the country to put so many people in jail so quickly without overcrowding prisons. In fact, if anything, the government did the opposite: President Moreno, Lasso’s predecessor, reduced the penitentiary budget by 30%.

The state quickly lost its authority in prisons. This led to gangs taking control of prisons, operating their businesses from inside, and a rapid increase in mutinies and gang violence within the prisons, which have killed hundreds in the last few years. Moreover, the rapid increase in the inmate population made it easier for gangs to find new recruits.

Ecuador is not new to drug violence. After all, the country lies between two of the largest coke producers in the world—Colombia and Peru. However, drug wars were not large-scale and only affected the civilian population in specific parts of some cities in the country. Moreover, in the last few years, different international organizations started operating in the country: Mexican cartels and Colombian cartels are fighting to control the traffic routes from Peru to southern Colombia, and even the Albanian mafia has links with local gangs.

Violence has also reached unseen levels. A few years ago, the country would have been shocked by talk of decapitations, car bombs, and children shot outside their schools. Now, they are a daily occurrence. Lately, gangs seem to feel strong enough to take a stand in the country’s politics.

In July, the mayor of Manta, a coastal city, Agustín Intriago was murdered while supervising the construction of some public buildings. He had been re-elected in March. Although the investigation is still ongoing, many saw signs of mob involvement in his death. Pedro Briones, a left-wing politician in the province of Esmeraldas, was also murdered in August, while mayor-elect Walker Vera of the city of Muisne was murdered before taking office in May.

In the ’80s, Colombia became the hotspot of global production of cocaine, and drug cartels ruled entire cities while threatening and murdering whoever got in their way. They were even able to infiltrate the government. But in 1989, presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán was shot dead in a rally in a hit ordered by Pablo Escobar. Galán was known for his promises of ridding Colombia of cartels and corruption, which earned him many powerful enemies.

Galán’s murder led to a change of attitude among Colombian elites against the cartels. A new Constitution was drafted in 1992, allowing the extradition of Colombian nationals, and Colombia accepted more U.S. help to deal with cartels. By 1993, Escobar was dead and, by 1996, both the Medellín and Cali cartels—the biggest in the country—were dismantled. 

Now in 2023, Colombia still has problems with drug gangs and cartels. But it is no longer ruled by them nor is it the failed state it was in the ’80s.

The parallels between Colombia in the ’80s and Ecuador today are striking. Will Villavicencio’s murder become a “Galán moment,” or will it just be the confirmation that Ecuador is slowly but surely becoming a failed state?