Once-peaceful Ecuador enters a new era: ‘We are in a state of war’

QUITO, Ecuador — This country was once a relatively peaceful haven in South America, wedged between neighbors often racked by armed conflict and guerrilla violence.

On Wednesday, Ecuador’s president, Daniel Noboa, declared that his nation was entering a new era: “We are in a state of war.”

A day earlier, the 36-year-old president had taken an extraordinary measure never before used in Ecuador and rarely seen in Latin America, formally announcing a state of internal armed conflict and giving the military sweeping powers to combat 22 criminal gangs he defined as “terrorists.”

Noboa issued the executive order in response to a series of apparently coordinated attacks that swept across Ecuador on Tuesday, terrorizing citizens and paralyzing cities. A group of armed men took over a TV station during a live broadcast, holding its staff hostage at gunpoint. More than 30 car explosions took place across the country, riots broke out in several prisons, and at least seven police officers were kidnapped. In Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city and the epicenter of the violence, four people were killed by armed men who shot them indiscriminately while they were walking in the streets, according to the city’s police chief. Dozens of prison guards continue to be held hostage in four prisons across the country.

The attacks followed the prison escape of the country’s most notorious gang leader, José Adolfo “Fito” Macías Villamar, who had received leaked information that the government was planning to transfer top gang leaders to maximum-security prison wards, Noboa said. Government officials have suggested this move may have prompted the attacks.

The government is now in a battle against criminal organizations with more than 20,000 members, Noboa said — groups that have now become “military targets.”

Tuesday’s chaos — and Noboa’s stunning declaration of armed conflict — marks a turning point in an escalating security crisis over the past four years that analysts describe as one of the worst in Latin America in more than a decade. The never-ending global demand for cocaine has helped turn this small country into a crucial transit point for drugs and a bloody battleground for gangs.

Violence erupted across Ecuador after the country’s most notorious gang leader escaped from prison. President Daniel Noboa declared a state of emergency Jan. 8. (Video: Reuters)

Ecuador TV station stormed by gunmen, president declares state of conflict

Teaming up with international cartels, the gangs have gained power and wreaked havoc. Deadly prison riots. Widespread extortion, kidnappings, car bombs. The assassination of a presidential candidate. The violence has drawn comparisons to the worst days of Pablo Escobar’s narcoterrorism decades ago in neighboring Colombia and the onslaught of gang violence in São Paulo, Brazil, in 2006.

The military and police had apprehended 329 “terrorists” by Wednesday afternoon and killed five, according to the head of the Armed Forces Joint Command, Jaime Patricio Vela. In addition, 1,500 inmates who are foreign nationals will be deported to countries including Colombia and Venezuela, Noboa said.

“We will consider that the judges and prosecutors who support identified leaders of these terrorist groups are also as part of the terrorist groups,” Noboa said.

The president’s order “mixes armed conflicts with crime,” and applies a terrorist designation also used by Colombia to describe its guerrilla groups and insurgencies, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, said Hugo Acero Velásquez, a former security secretary in Bogotá, Colombia, who advises mayors in Ecuador. But rarely has a Latin American government formally defined non-insurgent criminal gangs as terrorists and declared an internal conflict against them, applying the international laws of war.

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Juan Pappier, deputy Americas director for Human Rights Watch, described Noboa’s declaration as “highly questionable” legally and “probably a recipe for disaster.”

Under international law, a declaration of armed conflict requires two things: a certain level of hostility or fighting from an armed group; and a level of organization from that group, such as a chain of command and a headquarters. Ecuador’s government, Pappier argued, has not provided evidence fulfilling the two requirements, and in fact seems to “ignore” them.

“This opens the door for all sorts of abuses,” Pappier said, including “arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial executions committed with full impunity.”

Noboa’s response reflects the influence of what some have described as the “Bukele effect,” the controversial approach by El Salvador’s president to fight that country’s gangs. Countries in the region are increasingly relying on states of emergency and expanded military powers to resolve security crises.

“I think it’s a broader reflection of the incapacity of many Latin American governments to find effective solutions to organized crime,” Pappier said.

How to match Bukele’s success against gangs? First, dismantle democracy.

Fernando Bastias, a human rights defender in Guayaquil, said he believes the constitutional court will intervene and block the president’s order.

“How will you differentiate who belongs to one gang and who belongs to another gang?” he asked. “What it does is put the rights of the civilian population at risk, people who have nothing to do with anything, but who are now going to be involved in a war called by the state.”

Gen. Víctor Herrera, police chief for the district of Guayaquil, argued that the presidential order is an important step. In the next 60 days, he said in an interview with The Washington Post, authorities aim to target the logistics and financing of the gangs, which profit from drug trafficking, extortion and illegal mining. Authorities will also focus on dismantling arms and explosives trafficking networks that enter through Peru. Herrera said several criminal groups were involved in this week’s attacks, especially Los Tiguerones and the gang considered the country’s largest and most dangerous, Los Lobos.

Bastias said Guayaquil remained paralyzed by fear a day after the attacks across the city. His mother was stopped and held at gunpoint while driving Tuesday, and was only let go after she told the armed men that she lived in the neighborhood. Bastias’s colleagues were stuck across town, unable to get home for hours as public services shut down, schools closed and taxis were impossible to find.

“Everyone went running home,” Bastias said. “It was a moment of chaos, of fear, and we realized that this crisis had reached a new stage of violence.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the sidewalks near the National Assembly in Quito were emptied of tourists, the shops mostly shuttered. Every few blocks, police stopped cars to check for explosives and drugs. Around the Carondelet Palace — where the president lives — the streets were blocked off by soldiers in helmets, gripping guns.

“It’s the first time in my life that I see something like this — no people in the street; bombs,” said Melony Carrera, a 30-year-old tourist guide in an empty plaza. The tourists, she feared, had already left.

In only a few days, everything changed for 21-year-old Joseph Alvear. A personal trainer in Quito, he’d seen the streets go silent Tuesday as civilians were told to shelter in their homes following the president’s declaration of war.

It is a two-hour commute to and from the Valle de Los Chillos, where Alvear lives with his parents and 23-year-old brother, who was told Tuesday that his college courses would now be held online. The route into Quito, Alvear said, was a highway of fear and desperation, full of people “scared and trying to escape.” There were accidents, stalled cars. Soon, Alvear said, he will quit his job, as the bus commute is too dangerous to continue.

“Imagine if the terrorists win,” Alvear said. “What will happen? We are in free fall.”

Schmidt reported from Bogotá. Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

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