Drugs, crime and protests: Ecuador stares into the abyss
Quito (AFP) – Emboldened drug traffickers, hundreds of deaths in prisons, a government dogged by scandal, and an economy ravaged by Covid have Ecuador staring into the abyss.
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Crime, mostly linked to drugs, has claimed almost 1,900 lives this year, just this Friday taking the life of Alex Quinonez, one of the country's most promising athletes.
His death sparked an outpouring of grief in the Andean nation of 17.7 million people, wracked by political instability and which this year saw one of the worst prison massacres in Latin America's history.
After just five months in power, conservative President Guillermo Lasso is facing an investigation in Congress over "Pandora Papers" revelations that he allegedly hid millions in assets overseas -- and he claims his opponents are planning impeachment.
And with demonstrations planned this week against increasing fuel prices and other economic ills worsened by the pandemic, tensions are unlikely to abate anytime soon.
- Narco violence -
Nestled between Colombia and Peru, the world's top cocaine producers, Ecuador had managed to avoid the worst of the drug-related violence that engulfed its troubled neighbours.
But a war for drug revenues has pit gangs at the service of Mexican and Colombian cartels against each other, sparking a surge in violence that has sent the homicide rate from 7.8 per 100,000 inhabitants last year to 10.6 between January and October 2021.
The violence claimed one of its most high profile victims Friday with the killing of famed Ecuadorian athlete Alex Quinonez in the port city of Guayaquil.
One of the country's most successful athletes and among the world's top sprinters, his death prompted an outpouring of grief -- and demands that his killers be brought to justice.
Ecuador lacks "a strong response to a bigger problem, which is the penetration of transnational organized crime," said Daniel Ponton, dean of the School of Security and Defense at the Institute for Higher National Studies (IAEN).
The violence has prompted President Lasso to declare a state of emergency for 60 days, sending the military into the streets in support of the police.
"National sovereignty is threatened by drug trafficking," he said.
Analysts say drug traffickers have their sights set on Ecuador due to its permeable borders, a dollarized economy, and major seaports for export.
Ecuador "is among the corridors that lead to the countries with the highest drug consumption, such as the United States, through the Pacific basin, and Brazil, through the Amazon River basin," Fernando Carrion, from the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (Flacso), told AFP.
Drug seizures reached an annual record of 147 tonnes between January and October 2021, and experts believe that domestic consumption is around 100 tonnes.
Violence has consumed Ecuador's prisons, where horrific armed clashes between inmates linked to cartels including the Mexican Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation groups have left around 240 dead so far this year.
In September, 119 inmates were killed in one of Latin America's worst ever prison massacres.
Lasso has sent the military into the prisons, often overcrowded well beyond their original capacity.
The penitentiaries have become "criminal central commands," according to Fredy Rivera, director of the URVIO Latin American Journal of Security Studies.
Lasso came to power pledging to bring "true change" to a pandemic-battered and debt-laden economy and a political system riven with gridlock when he won the election in April.
But he has angered indigenous people, workers and students by increasing fuel prices by up to 12 percent on Friday.
Those groups plan to march Tuesday in Quito to demand a freeze in prices after monthly increases since 2020.
"Instead of lowering tensions, this is causing tremendous discomfort, discontent among workers and the people," union leader Angel Sanchez told AFP.
Involved in the protest will be the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (Conaie), which took part in riots that overthrew three presidents between 1997 and 2005, and which led 2019 demonstrations against the elimination of fuel subsidies in which 11 people died.
If the government "decides to go for the coercive alternative... these tensions will escalate," said political scientist Karen Garzon Sherdeck from SEK University in Quito.
Lasso, a former banker, is currently under investigation for appearing in the "Pandora Papers" by the Prosecutor's Office and Congress, in which he does not have a majority.
Instead the legislature is dominated by allies of former socialist president Rafael Correa -- Lasso's main rival.
Lasso has said his opponents are planning to impeach him, in a move that would add him to a long list of deposed Ecuadorian leaders.
© 2021 AFP