Has the security situation in Ecuador worsened?

Workers lie on the floor as hooded and armed people take over a tv studio of Ecuador's TV station TC during a live broadcast, in this still image of a Reuters' recording of the affair of TC signal channel, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, January 9, 2024. Reuters Tv/via REUTERS ECUADOR OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN ECUADOR. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

Amid a surge of violence across the nation on Tuesday, armed assailants equipped with explosives forcibly entered a TV station on-air in Ecuador. In response to the escalating situation, President Daniel Noboa designated 22 gangs as terrorist organizations, directing the military to pursue them.

The incident unfolded during a live broadcast at TC’s studio in the coastal city of Guayaquil, where 13 men wielding long-range guns, grenades, and dynamites stormed the premises. Witnesses reported that the police intervened, ultimately rescuing the TV staff and apprehending the intruders.

The arguments

On Sunday, authorities announced that Adolfo Macias, the leader of the Los Choneros criminal gang, had gone missing from the prison where he was serving a 34-year sentence. Efforts are underway to locate him.

Simultaneously, incidents of violence erupted in at least six prisons from Monday, involving the hostage-taking of 150 or more guards and staff by prisoners. In Riobamba, 39 inmates managed to escape, although some have since been recaptured.

By Tuesday, the violence spilled onto the streets, with reports of seven police officers being kidnapped in various incidents across the country and five confirmed explosions in several cities, resulting in no reported injuries.

President Noboa, steadfast in his refusal to negotiate with “terrorists,” attributed the unrest to his government’s plans for constructing a new high-security prison for incarcerated gang leaders. On Monday, he declared a 60-day state of emergency, a measure previously employed with limited success by his predecessor, Guillermo Lasso. The declaration enables military patrols, including within prisons, and imposes a national nighttime curfew.

In an updated decree on Tuesday, Noboa officially acknowledged an “internal armed conflict” in Ecuador, designating several criminal gangs, including Los Choneros, as terrorist groups. The decree instructed the armed forces to neutralize these groups.

While Noboa’s coalition holds a majority in the national assembly, some Ecuadorians are questioning why the president isn’t taking more stringent measures against the gangs.

Noboa intends to conduct a security-focused plebiscite later in the year. This referendum will include inquiries about whether the government should lift the ban on the extradition of Ecuadorians sought abroad and whether asset seizures from suspected criminals should be permitted.

The facts

Security conditions in Ecuador have deteriorated since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which also inflicted severe damage on the economy.

The government reported a significant increase in nationwide violent deaths, reaching 8,008 in 2023, nearly double the 2022 figure of over 4,500. The presidential election in Ecuador last year was marred by the assassination of an anti-corruption candidate.

Authorities attribute the deteriorating situation to the expanding influence of cocaine-trafficking gangs, which have disrupted large portions of the continent. Within Ecuador’s prisons, these gangs have capitalized on the weak state control, expanding their dominance. Incidents of prison violence, attributed to gang conflicts for control, have become more frequent, resulting in hundreds of deaths.

Guayaquil, the country’s largest coastal city, is deemed the most dangerous, with its ports serving as a central hub for drug smuggling.

Upon assuming office in November, President Noboa promoted his “Phoenix Plan” for security, encompassing a new intelligence unit, tactical weapons for security forces, the establishment of high-security prisons, and reinforced security measures at ports and airports. The plan comes with an estimated cost of $800 million, with the United States contributing $200 million for new weapons for the army.

The newly appointed president, Daniel Noboa, has committed to combating the escalating crime that hindered his predecessor. However, he confronts significant challenges, including gang dominance in prisons, police abductions, and instances of bombings.

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