By Ryan C. Berg and Margarita R. Seminario
Ecuador is experiencing a rapid rise in homicide rates. A failure to stem, and eventually reverse, insecurity could undermine the popularity of Ecuador’s new government, which is staunchly pro-U.S. and continues to repair Ecuador’s democracy after the autocratic rule of long-time President Rafael Correa vitiated institutions and undermined rule-of-law. In a region beset by democratic backsliding, the U.S. should work with Ecuador to improve security in a country that represents one of the few feel-good stories.
From January to October 2021, Ecuador already registered 500 more homicides than in all of 2020, almost all of them occuring the country’s coastal cities. Thus far in 2021, nearly 300 people have died in gruesome prison violence. The port city of Guayaquil has been rocked by a spate of grisly prison insurrections, heralding the intensified rivalry of transnational criminal organizations. In late September, inmates linked to Mexican and Colombian criminal groups initiated one of the deadliest prison massacres in Latin America’s history — resulting in the deaths of over 100 inmates. The macabre situation repeated itself in November.
In response, President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of public emergency — since extended — that has mobilized the military and the police to fight drug-related violence. While the campaign has achieved some positive results in the immediate term, the underlying dynamics of insecurity are still operative. The country’s Pacific coast remains an important embarkation point for drug trafficking. Colombian guerrillas have extended their influence further into Ecuador and established trafficking routes along the porous border areas in the country’s north. And Mexico’s dominant criminal organizations, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, have expanded their footprint in an effort to cut out criminal organizations in Central America from the trafficking chain. The resulting turf wars have helped fuel the uptick in violence, with Ecuador’s government estimating that 70 percent of violent deaths are connected to drug trafficking.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Ecuador in October, where he and Lasso discussed security cooperation. Drawing a parallel with neighboring Colombia’s long struggle against guerrilla groups, Lasso has recently urged the U.S. to launch a “Plan Ecuador” partnership to help the country improve security and fight persistent drug trafficking. Plan Colombia was a wide-ranging, bipartisan initiative that saw $10 billion in foreign aid, military assistance, and diplomatic initiatives over a 15-year period.
While Lasso should be commended for his ambitious vision, it is unlikely that U.S.-Ecuador security cooperation will approach the heights of Plan Colombia. Still, there is good reason for the U.S. to think it can make a difference by deepening cooperation to address Ecuador’s security challenges — and with an astronomical 90,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2020, limiting the flow of deadly narcotics is an important component of saving American lives.
The U.S. reopened its Office of Security Cooperation in 2018 under Lasso’s predecessor, Lenín Moreno. Traditional U.S. security assistance from the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs has aided Ecuador’s police and armed forces, to the tune of $27 million, augmenting their ability to tackle myriad criminal threats in the country. In September, Admiral Craig Faller, then-head of SOUTHCOM, visited Ecuador to strengthen security ties through a regional intelligence sharing and coordination system.
There are more immediate security needs as well. One-third of Ecuador’s territory is not covered by radar systems, hampering the country’s ability to monitor and control its air traffic. U.S. radar systems could increase Ecuador’s ability to identify and intercept narcotics flights, curtailing the air route over the country. It would also help Lasso meet his stated goal of acquiring radar systems capable of monitoring 100 percent of Ecuador’s territory by March 2022. The U.S. could seek to reap further rewards from past investments in regional security by strengthening cooperation between the Colombian National Police and their Ecuadorian counterparts, providing contextualized and timely technical assistance and peer-to-peer training in methods to combat organized crime.
The Biden administration should also deepen its cooperation with Ecuador in addressing the country’s unconventional security threats. For instance, the two countries have already worked together to address illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, with the U.S. providing technical assistance and training. The next logical step would be to deepen coast guard and naval cooperation, in an effort to deter Chinese fishing vessels from entering sensitive territorial waters around the Galápagos Islands. Ecuador’s recent signing of a maritime agreement at the UN’sCOP26 Climate Conference — in conjunction with Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia — is the first step toward creating the largest marine biosphere reserve in the world. The ambitious agreement will remain unfulfilled, however, without a credible capability to deter the threat posed by IUU fishing.
If done properly, U.S. security assistance can have knock-on effects in the quality of governance and democracy. Throughout Latin America, transnational organized crime groups often penetrate state institutions and contribute to metastasizing corruption. In a country like Ecuador, where the quality of governance and democracy is moving in the right direction, yet institutions have not fully consolidated after Correa’s autocratic rule, preventing the criminal penetration of state institutions should be a top U.S. priority. In other words, U.S. security assistance can help Ecuador to fight transnational crime and simultaneously deepen its democratic principles.
A renewed U.S. ally in Latin America is requesting greater resources and attention. It is time to act swiftly, think realistically, and tap into innovative measures that enhance typical U.S. bilateral security assistance.
Ryan C. Berg is senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).
Margarita R. Seminario is deputy director and senior fellow in the Americas Program at CSIS.