Ecuador’s top stories of 2023: A year of drug wars, assassination, corruption and political surprises

Jan 1, 2024 | 0 comments

By Sylvan Hardy

Journalists are unanimous in their verdict that 2023 was not a good year for Ecuador. The headlines highlighted surging drug violence, the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, political gridlock in the National Assembly, the cross death, the surprise election of Daniel Noboa as president, a vote to end oil production in the Yasuní National Park, and dozens of corruption arrests of judges, police commanders and elected officials.

“You can pick your poison,” a newspaper editor said on Ecuavisa’s “Year in Review” news panel. “Yes, there were a few good things to report but I don’t recall a year when we had more bad news. We look forward to a better 2024.”

The following are the top stories of 2023, not in rank order, according to print, radio and television journalists.

A surging murder rate — on the coast
An explosion of violence in Ecuador’s coastal provinces, most of it related to turf wars among drug gangs and cartels, means the country ends the year with one of the highest murder rates in Latin America. National Police say the rate will top 44 murders per 100,000 population. Some municipalities, they say, will have rates above 100.

Presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated August 9 in Quito.

The hardest-hit provinces are Los Rios, Guayas, Manabi and Esmeraldas. Cites reporting the most murders are Guayaquil, Duran, Manta and Esmeraldas.

Paradoxically, the Interior Ministry reports murders and other crimes are trending down in Ecuador’s Andean region, with cities such as Cuenca and Loja reporting murders at under 3.5 per 100,000. If the Andean provinces were a separate country, Interior Minister Mónica Palencia says, it would rank among the top five countries in Latin America for the lowest murder rate.

Electricity blackouts
As a result of a prolonged drought in the southern inter-mountain valley, due in part to the El Niño weather pattern, Ecuador imposed electric service blackouts for the first time in 13 years. Since October 27, most of the country has experienced two- and three-hour daily blackouts.

The Energy Ministry suspended power interruptions until at least January 15 as a result of recent rainfall in the south and says it is possible service could return to normal if rains continue.

Emergency legislation, presented by the new government of Daniel Noboa, is being considered by the National Assembly to increase the country’s electric generation capacity.

Assassination of Fernando Villavicencio
On August 9, Ecuador was shocked by the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, a crusader against corruption and criminal gangs. The six Colombians responsible for the Quito shooting were themselves murdered in prison but it is believed that the assassination was ordered by a drug gang leader, possibly with a connection to a Mexican cartel.

Attorney General Diana Salazar

The Attorney General’s office says it will report investigation findings later in January.

The year also saw the assassination of four other elected officials, including the mayor of Manta who, it turned out, had connections to drug trafficker Leandro Norero.

Voters end oil production in Yasuní National Park
In a national referendum, voters overwhelming overturned former President Rafael Correa’s 2013 decision to begin oil drilling in Yasuní National Park. A petition to hold a vote on the issue in 2014 was rejected by the elections commission, apparently under pressure from the government.

The impact of the vote is that Ecuador will lose about 11% of its oil production capacity. The Noboa government said it will honor the voters’ choice and begin dismantling Yasuní oil facilities later in the year.

The cross death and call for new elections
Former president Guillermo Lasso ended gridlock in the National Assembly and probably prevented his impeachment by invoking the so-called cross death, an option provided presidents in the constitution. The move dissolved the Assembly, called emergency elections and allowed him to rule by decree, with oversight from the Constitutional Court, for seven months.

Lasso, whose popularity had dropped below 20% at the time of the cross death, chose not to run again.

Operation Metastasis shows the extent of official corruption
The December arrests of 35 judges, police commanders, prison administrators and elected officials revealed the control that criminal organizations have on Ecuador’s government institutions. The case focused on drug gang boss Leandro ‘El Patrón’ Norero, whose cell phone calls, and text messages implicated dozens of officials and explained why high-profile criminals, including former vice president Jorge Glas, were allowed to go free by Ecuador’s justice system.

President Daniel Noboa

Among those arrested in the sweep was the former president of Ecuador’s judicial council, Wilman Terán. Three other judges on the five-member council were also arrested. Among other arrests were the former chief of the national prison system and a Citizens Revolution National Assemblyman who was on Nerero’s payroll.

Attorney General Diana Salazar says more arrests are expected in the case.

Daniel Noboa’s upset victory
Ecuadorians went to the polls three times in 2023, the first to elect local officials, the second and third to pick a new president and National Assembly, the result of Lasso’s cross death.

The biggest surprise was the election of Daniel Noboa to fill out the 17 months remaining in Lasso’s term. A little-known National Assemblyman and son of billionaire banana baron Alvaro Noboa, Noboa overcame a 10% deficit to the Citizens Revolution candidate Luisa Gonzalez in the first primary to win the presidency.

In his first weeks in office, Noboa has formed a majority coalition in the Assembly that has passed an emergency economic reform bill and four other major pieces of legislation. He has announced plans to present referendum questions to voters in March or April aimed at supporting the fight against drug traffickers and organized crime. In addition, he says he will build two new maximum-security prisons.

Experts say Noboa will be limited in what he can accomplish in 17 months but believe he is well-positioned to win a full term in the 2025 national elections. In three opinion polls taken in late December, he had a favorability rating of 63%.

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