Ecuador arrests 6,000 people in month-long gang crackdown

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Ecuador has arrested more than 6,000 people and seized nearly 47 tonnes of illegal drugs since launching a crackdown on violent drug gangs nearly a month ago.

Ecuador, once a relatively tranquil country compared with neighbouring Colombia and Peru, is tackling a crime wave in which the murder rate increased nine-fold since 2017, according to the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, as gangs jostle for control of lucrative trafficking routes.

On January 9, President Daniel Noboa declared Ecuador was living through an “internal armed conflict”, and designated 22 gangs as terrorist groups, enabling the military to target them. He also ordered a 60-day state of emergency with nightly curfews.

Violence had surged when José Adolfo Macías, leader of the feared Los Choneros gang, escaped from jail earlier last month. In the ensuing chaos, a TV station was attacked on-air while more than 200 prison workers were taken hostage by inmates. Macías, who is better known by the alias Fito, remains at large.

Noboa, the 36-year-old son of a billionaire banana magnate, took office in November promising to confront gangs and boost the Andean nation’s faltering economy.

Since his declaration of war against the gangs, police have carried out more than 77,000 operations, including nightly raids on suspected safe houses that have yielded the seizure of nearly 2,000 guns and banknotes worth $168,000. The confiscation of 47 tonnes of illegal drugs is about a quarter of the total seizures for all of last year, according to police figures.

The government has shared photographs of inmates, shirtless and closely lined up on prison forecourts. Of the 6,341 thousand people arrested, 231 have been accused of terrorism, with the number likely to increase overcrowding at prisons that have become bases from which gangs can operate.

The number of people in jail already far exceeds the prison system’s capacity: 31,321 people were incarcerated at the end of 2022, according to the most recent census, 14 per cent higher than its official capacity.

The government reported a 41 per cent decrease in murders during the first two weeks of the crackdown, but violence continues to roil the country. Diana Carnero, a 29-year-old councillor in the violent coastal province of Guayas, was killed by two hitmen on a motorcycle on Wednesday, the police said.

On Wednesday, Washington imposed sanctions on Macías and Los Choneros. The move followed the visit to Quito last month of a high-level US delegation, including the commander of US Southern Command, which oversees US military activities in Latin America.

“Drug-trafficking gangs such as Los Choneros, many with ties to powerful cartels in Mexico, threaten communities in Ecuador and throughout the region,” said Brian Nelson, the US Treasury’s under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

“We stand in support of Ecuador in its fight to combat drug trafficking, curb the proliferation of prison gangs and prison violence, and take back its streets.”

In a separate series of operations, police in Ecuador and Spain arrested more than 30 people as part of a probe into Albanian criminal groups believed to be working with trafficking networks in South America, the Ecuadorean attorney-general said on Tuesday. Spanish authorities seized about €450,000 in cash, according to an official statement.

Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the sweeping arrests and the state of emergency in Ecuador are reminiscent of the hardline measures taken by El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele against gangs.

Bukele comfortably won re-election on Sunday in large part because of a draconian crackdown on gangs in which 76,000 people — about 1.7 per cent of the population — have been put behind bars. 

Bukele, who like Noboa is a millennial once seen as a political outsider, has been accused of using El Salvador’s security crisis to cow the country’s democratic institutions.

“Noboa has made no moves that we know of to pack and control the judiciary and other state institutions which Bukele did before he launched his anti-gang strategy,” Freeman said.

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