Thanks to the Inter-American Dialogue for the opportunity to contribute to their Latin America Advisor publication, in which they seek input from a few people about a current question.
The question this week was about Ecuador: “Ecuadorean President-elect Daniel Noboa, who takes office next Thursday, has raised the possibility of using the military to fight drug traffickers and has said he would call for a referendum on the subject within his first 100 days in office. Noboa is taking office in the midst of a surge in narcotrafficking and violence, which has led the homicide rate to soar. Why has outgoing President Guillermo Lasso been unable to curb violence and the homicide rate, and what must Noboa do differently? Will voters approve using the military to fight drug traffickers? What challenges will Noboa face in improving security given that his term lasts only 18 months?”
“It’s hard to think of other jurisdictions where violent crime rates increased sixfold in just four years, but that is what has happened in once-peaceful Ecuador. Outgoing President Guillermo Lasso, who governed during the pandemic and a chaotic post-FARC realignment of Colombia’s trafficking networks, lacked the institutional tools to respond to criminal violence, which originated in prisons and along trafficking routes but has since metastasized. Like Lasso, Daniel Noboa now must address the challenge while able to employ only his government’s weak, neglected, corruption-riven security sector. Under those circumstances, sending in the military to fight crime may seem like an attractive option. But there are very few examples in the hemisphere of violent crime declining significantly after troop deployments, and many examples of such deployments increasing human rights abuses. Unlike insurgencies, organized crime is an ‘enemy’ that prefers not to fight the government. It operates by penetrating and corrupting the same state institutions that are supposed to be fighting it. That makes organized crime a far more challenging adversary, requiring a smarter approach than brute force. Instead of troops, Ecuador needs the capacity to identify criminal masterminds, track financial flows, respond to violence ‘hotspots,’ improve response times, support community-level violence initiatives, weed out corrupt officials and many other duties that an adequately resourced civilian security sector performs. Noboa has issued vague proposals to fill some of those long-term institutional needs. The concern is that he may neglect these—which do not yield short-term results—in favor of a military response, which offers the illusion of action and carries big human rights risks.”