Ecuador, once an “island of peace” in South America, has rapidly descended into violence, marking a shocking shift for a nation that was relatively stable and secure. President Daniel Noboa’s declaration of “internal armed conflict” follows a series of escalating gang-related incidents, including a dramatic prison escape and an armed attack on a television station. The nation has witnessed coordinated attacks on hospitals, businesses, and universities, as well as violent prison riots, bombings, and abductions. This surge in violence, including the deaths of police and over a hundred prison staff taken hostage, signals a dramatic escalation in the power and boldness of criminal gangs.
The roots of this crisis trace back to changes in the global cocaine trade and shifts in power dynamics following the demobilization of the FARC in Colombia. This created a power vacuum in northern Ecuador, coinciding with a shift in cocaine demand to Europe, making Ecuadorian ports like Guayaquil strategic for drug smuggling. The situation worsened as foreign criminal groups, including Mexican cartels and Venezuelan gangs, intensified their involvement in Ecuador. This led to a violent power struggle among local gangs, further fueled by international criminal organizations. The resultant spike in violence, with murders quadrupling since 2018 and gruesome acts of violence becoming more common, signifies a dire transformation for Ecuador, challenging its governmental and law enforcement capabilities.