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En las últimas dos semanas, la situación de violencia en Ecuador se ha desbordado. | EFE

Ecuador: a question of security in Latin America

The declaration of a state of emergency in Ecuador reveals security challenges that threaten democracy and human rights in the region. What are the solutions to the crisis and how to protect fundamental rights in a context of increasing violence?

Por: Laura Sofia Forero Alba, Christy CrouseFebruary 21, 2024

On January 8, Ecuador’s president, Daniel Noboa, declared a state of emergency following riots in several of the country’s prisons and the escape of Jose Adolfo Macias, alias “Fito”. Through this declaration, he empowered the military forces to take charge of internal security tasks as an immediate strategy to deal with security problems. This security crisis is the result of other deeper causes that have been occurring in the country in recent years. Its solution requires the implementation of comprehensive and long-term policies that incorporate a regional perspective and center, at their core, the protection of human rights. 

What is Ecuador’s current security situation? 

In the last two weeks, the violent situation in Ecuador has spiraled out of control. Following the escape of Macias, who is one of the leaders of “Los Choneros,” one of the most important criminal organizations in the country, there has been a sharp increase in violent acts. These crimes include the kidnapping of police officers, vehicle explosions, prison riots, detentions of prison officials and even the violent assault of a live television channel. The prosecutor who was investigating the assault on the tv channel was also assassinated. 

But while this wave of violence is shocking, it is not unexpected if we take into account the security context in the country during the past decade. The country has experienced in recent years: an advance in the power of criminal organizations with a strong involvement in drug trafficking; the inability of the penitentiary system to control crime within it; and serious threats to democracy and governance, including the assassination of a presidential candidate in 2023. 

These and other factors have contributed to an escalation of lethal violence in the country. In a recent column, Rodrigo Uprimny noted Ecuador’s rising homicide rate with more than 7,600 murders, well above the 4,600 in 2022 and 2,100 in 2021. It rose from 7 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020 to over 43 last year. UNICEF has highlighted that at least 770 homicides of children and adolescents were recorded in the country in 2023, an increase of 640% over the 2019 figure. 

As a result, Ecuador is the most insecure place in Latin America, as suggested by a Gallup perception survey and, as a result, many have begun to migrate. 

In this context, President Noboa decreed a state of emergency to respond to these threats to public security and ordered the army to take to the streets to reestablish control. In the decree he denominated the situation an “internal armed conflict” and declared a state of war against some twenty-two criminal groups operating in his territory. This declaration implies an exceptional use of military forces—much less restricted than in normal times—by the state against the identified threats. This could have serious consequences on the rights and freedoms of individuals. 

Security and democracy in Latin America 

Security in Latin America is highly complex and serious because it affects the quality of the democratic life of the population. Although it is experienced differently in each country, it is a regional problem in its essence and requires collaborative solutions because illegal actors act transnationally; criminality and the different forms of violence they use are not confined to specific borders. Security problems, such as this one in Ecuador, have ripple effects that touch border countries such as Colombia and others in the region. 

Unaddressed and unresolved security issues are constant and quickly becoming a fundamental concern for people in the region. It is increasingly evident that citizens are willing to give up certain rights and freedoms if, in exchange, governments promise to implement efficient policies to control crime. These strategies often assume the formula of the “mano dura” (iron fist) and generate threats to human rights. In most cases, they result in arbitrary detentions that violate due process and the presumption of innocence, while not being transparent with security-related information. For example, this is the case in El Salvador, where the Bukele government decreed an emergency regime on March 27, 2022, which continues to this day, and has committed serious human rights violations under the justification of resolving gang-related security problems.  

The Latinobarómetro, a public opinion survey applied annually in 18 Latin American countries, measures, among other things, support for and satisfaction with democracy. For the year 2023, its results show that only 28% of the region’s inhabitants were satisfied with the performance of democracy, while 69% were dissatisfied. Furthermore, in this same year, 17% of the people interviewed considered that “in some circumstances, an authoritarian government may be preferable to a democratic one”, which shows an increase from 13% in 2020. 

In Ecuador, in particular, only 12% are satisfied with the functioning of democracy in their country, compared to 87% who are dissatisfied, and 19% consider that an authoritarian government may be preferable in some cases. 

This evidence suggests that in Latin America people are ceasing to support democracy and the values that sustain it. This seems to be associated with the perception that democracy has failed to satisfy citizens’ demands on issues that are socially valued as relevant, such as security.

The security agenda and human rights 

In Ecuador, Noboa won early presidential elections on the promise of tackling crime and drug trafficking. However, there are several human rights risks when security is addressed through a state of emergency. This mechanism allows the president, in an extraordinary and transitory manner, to issue measures or actions to address a crisis without going through some controls or procedures that are ordinarily applied. 

Securitization and militarization policies generate enormous risks because military forces are not trained to handle internal security tasks. For several decades, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has insisted that “given that the armed forces lack adequate training for the control of citizen security, it is up to a civilian police force, efficient and respectful of human rights, to combat insecurity, crime and violence in the domestic sphere”. 

In addition, fighting between armed forces and criminal groups can disproportionately affect the population. They can, for example, cause deaths or serious harm to personal integrity, or favor arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances and even promote discriminatory treatment. In the case of Ecuador, in particular, there has been a militarization of the police in recent decades, as well as a securitization of criminal policy, which puts human rights at risk and erodes the foundations of civilian government.  In the end, it has already been demonstrated in other countries that have applied the same policies, such as Mexico, that these policies do not reduce crime or solve the underlying problems. 

What solutions exist for the current crisis in Ecuador? 

The security crisis in Ecuador is a problem that permits us to reflect on the challenges that democracy is currently facing: people feel dissatisfied with its performance and are willing to give up freedoms if, in exchange, governments offer security. But it also makes it increasingly evident that there are cross-cutting problems in Latin America that must be addressed from a regional perspective, such as security, drug trafficking and corruption. These are phenomena that have serious implications in many countries of the region and, increasingly, crime, violence and other problems associated with security operate without regard to borders, overwhelming the capacity of governments and the legal frameworks that countries have to deal with them. 

Noboa is right that this problem exceeds the borders of Ecuador and requires international cooperation, but the actions to combat it should go far beyond support in armament or intelligence, but work on the implementation of comprehensive policies that attack the underlying problems. At the same time, these policies should have a regional focus and there should be a coordination effort between countries, because it is a phenomenon that requires it and national measures have already been shown to be insufficient. The protection of human rights is essential, especially in states of emergency, and any concrete measure or action to address these crises must be implemented within the framework of their full guarantee. 

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