A Declaration of War

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Ecuadoran prosecutors recently asked the South American country’s highest court to convict Carlos Angulo, the leader of the drug-trafficking Los Lobos gang, and his associate, Laura Castillo, of hiring hit men on motorcycles to kill presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio last year.

The assassination in the capital of Quito exposed how organized crime had gained power in Ecuador over the past few years, reported the Associated Press. Villavicencio was a former journalist who revealed government corruption and the links between politicians and gangs who work in the drug trade that moves through Ecuador’s Pacific coast ports to Mexico and Europe. It showed how the country has become enmeshed in a narcotics economy that also includes Colombia, Peru, the US, East European crime lords, and other producers, consumers, middlemen, and corrupt government officials – and let the country become battered and desperate.

Daniel Noboa, who took office in November, was elected to turn things around. Soon after, in January, the crime lords directly challenged him. Then, hooded gunmen took over a live television show in Guayaquil, the country’s largest city, and held hostages on air, wrote NBC News. On live television, one of the masked gunmen addressed the nation directly in a monologue. “You cannot play with the mafia,” he said.

A few days later, added the Evening Standard, Noboa declared a state of emergency after Adolfo Macias, or “Fito,” the leader of another gang, Los Choneros, escaped from prison. Noboa ordered the Ecuadoran army to “neutralize” 20 drug gangs. They immediately arrested 300 people and since then have brought some gang leaders to justice.

Fito remains at large, however, and Noboa continues to deploy the military to match the deadliness of the gangs he faces, describing the fight as an “internal armed conflict.” The world is waiting to see who will prevail and the terrible consequences if Noboa fails.

Experts are mixed in their opinions. Analyst James Bosworth at World Politics Review understood Noboa’s response – but warned that a more regional push was necessary to destroy the extended supply chains of illicit drugs that drive the violence.

“Thee clashes among Ecuador’s various gangs that have fueled the country’s skyrocketing homicide rate appear to be related to the violent rivalry between Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, both of which back different Ecuadorian factions,” he wrote.

Noboa has other problems to solve, too. The country’s economy is struggling. In April, the International Monetary Fund granted Ecuador a $4 billion economic rescue package as power shortages undermined production, wrote Agence France-Presse. Drug companies and health facilities have had to cut back as the economy has contracted, added Prensa Latina.

Ecuador’s busy ports face issues besides drugs, too. They have become one of the biggest reception points for Chinese nationals seeking to enter the US illegally, for example, noted Voice of America.

The new president has his work cut out for him. And he only has until May 2025 to get things done before a new election is held, one that will judge him harshly if he doesn’t make progress, said analysts.

Still, so far so good. Voters gave him a resounding “yes” in a referendum in April when asked whether the government should tighten security and heighten its fight against the crime groups.

“This gives him some vigor,” Andrea Endara, analyst and professor at Casa Grande University, told NPR. But “if the president does not begin to take actions to demonstrate that having voted ‘yes’ brings results to reduce insecurity, this support will quickly be diluted.”

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