A “Plan Ecuador” is Needed: U.S. Assistance Should Draw Lessons from the Past


Latin America and the Caribbean are home to just 9 percent of the global population but account for a third of the world’s homicides. A lethal mix of drugs, readily available firearms, and unemployed youth is fueling a wave of violence that has taken on epidemic proportions. Ecuador is now ground zero for the region’s gang brutality. Whether Quito succeeds in containing the violence will depend as much on how it manages corruption and political instability as it does on the brute force called upon to suppress organized crime.

On Jan. 9, more than a dozen gunmen rushed a television studio in Guayaquil during a live broadcast, overpowering the unarmed anchors and staff by dangling dynamite in their faces and directing them to the floor through the sights of their rifles. The attackers, who identified themselves as members of the La Firma gang, streamed their raid for more than 20 minutes before authorities cut the feed. The hostage standoff ended with tactical police units storming the studio only a few hours later, making 13 arrests. By the evening, the channel was back on the air for its routine programming.

But for Ecuador, a country long considered one of the most peaceful in South America, it is hardly back to business as usual. The incident, which took place amid simultaneous kidnappings, explosions, and criminal takeovers in hospitals, businesses, and prisons elsewhere in the country, is emblematic of the growing power of Ecuador’s armed gangs.

After noteworthy reductions in homicide rates across the Americas in the last decade, murder is once again on the rise thanks to all-out war among gangs vying for lucrative drug routes. Today, South American cocaine production is at its highest level on record, in part due to more resilient coca plant varieties and a significant drop in coca crop eradication in Colombia, the world’s largest exporter of the drug. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, criminal groups responded to supply chain disruptions, closed borders, and rising global drug use by diversifying their transit hubs. Countries long perceived to be immune from the worst effects of the illicit narcotics trade, including Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Uruguay, have seen violent crime mounting.

But the region’s downward spiral need not be a chronicle of a death foretold. In Ecuador, newfound national resolve and emerging offers of international cooperation can be an effective antidote to expanding gang violence. Indeed, the success of one of South America’s smallest countries in dismantling gangs and the corrupt institutions that protect them could be a promising start in turning the tide on Latin America’s new crime wave.

Ecuador in the Crosshairs

President Daniel Noboa, who after snap elections took office in November with a mandate to curb the country’s rising crime, declared a 60-day state of emergency the day before last month’s sensationalist escalation. But in the hours that followed the widely circulated transmission of the television studio takeover, he went one step further, designating 22 gangs as terrorist organizations to be treated as adversaries in an “internal armed conflict.” The brazen measure — following on the heels of the jailbreak of the country’s most notorious gang leader, José Adolfo “Fito” Macías Villamar of the Los Choneros group — blurs the lines between police and military operations. In effect, Noboa’s move gives free rein to the Ecuadorian military to retake prisons where gangs have revolted and to apply lethal force in subduing some 20,000 members of the country’s gang network.

Historically, Ecuador’s security concerns focused on its shared borders with neighboring Colombia and Peru, where spillover violence from insurgent and paramilitary groups occasionally took place. Yet the country’s recent political volatility, economic shocks and rising unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic , and an underfunded and corrupt police force  opened the door to cocaine traffickers. In recent years, local gangs, Mexican cartels, and even the Albanian mafia all prize the commercial port of Guayaquil  as a waypoint for cocaine-laden banana shipments bound for Europe. From Rotterdam to Istanbul, nearly a third of the cocaine seized on the continent originates in Ecuador.

Competition for control of Ecuador’s largest port  and surrounding coastal areas has contributed to a soaring homicide rate, up to 8,008 murders in 2023, and nationwide violent crime increased sixfold in just four years. It should come as no surprise that Ecuadorian migrants seeking refuge in the United States surged by 370 percent from 2022 to 2023, and recently Noboa’s foreign minister signaled the government’s intent to secure temporary protected status, or protection from deportation, for undocumented Ecuadorians residing in the United States until the security situation improves.

Across the Andean country, no one is immune from the violence. Last August, days before elections, assailants shot and killed presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, an outspoken critic of the criminal groups. Separately, the mayor of the country’s third largest city, local officials and political candidates, and popular sports stars and musicians have fallen victim to assassinations by gangs. Just a week after Noboa declared war, assailants gunned down César Suárez, the veteran organized crime prosecutor who was investigating the television studio raid.

Even powerful drug barons who command legions of loyal bodyguards while serving out sentences in Ecuadorian penitentiary facilities are at risk. In October, one of the country’s most prominent criminals, Leandro “El Patrón” Norero, was killed in a prison massacre resulting in 500 deaths. Investigations into the event further revealed the extent of governmental corruption after authorities seized the kingpin’s phone. So far, Ecuador’s attorney general has brought charges against 39 individuals, including judges, prosecutors, prison administrators, and police officers, for collusion with Norero.

Where drug money and violence exist, so too does the temptation for public officials to accept bribes or succumb to intimidation. Ecuadorian security forces have been especially susceptible, repeatedly pilfering weapons from government arsenals to sell them to criminal groups. In 2021, the U.S. ambassador in Ecuador sounded the alarm over institutional corruption in the police, going as far as revoking U.S. visas from several “narco-generals” from the highest ranks of the country’s law enforcement.

Militarization: A Slippery Slope

As the full picture of public corruption in Ecuador comes into focus, it is up for debate whether Noboa’s instinct to militarize the fight against organized crime will make much of a difference. He is hardly alone  among regional leaders, as pervasive police corruption and public demands for hard-handed approaches to crime have resulted in the military’s use in law-and-order missions throughout Latin America. But militarization of public security in isolation has seldom proven a wholly effective or sustainable strategy for reducing the incidence of violent crime.

One of the main reasons  why the military is no match for organized crime is the very nature of the threat: Drug gangs, unlike insurgencies and terrorist groups, do not seek to overwhelm and upend governments, but rather to co-opt them. Infiltration is the objective, and the most successful criminal outfits thrive within the existing contours of the state, exerting quiet and undetectable influence over officials’ decision-making in ways that favor impunity for crime.

In places like Brazil and Mexico , the deployment of the military in lieu of police to confront gangs has inadvertently raised the stakes of armed confrontation, encouraging armed groups to strengthen their firepower reserves. The tens of billions of dollars that Mexican cartels make in annual profits from drug trafficking into the United States and the ready availability of firearms in U.S. border states has meant that cartels can often outgun state forces.

Although military responses can be effective in responding to immediate security crises, the persistence of criminal violence prevents governments from sending soldiers back to their barracks and investing in wholesale police reform. States of exception are so routine they are at risk of becoming the steady state.

The increased contact between citizens and soldiers, untrained in policing operations, often leads to escalating human rights abuses, as well. At a time when governments are most desperate to bolster their credibility, they inadvertently expose their most popular institutions — the armed forces — to widespread public criticism over arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial murders.

The suspension of judicial rights and civil liberties in El Salvador by the Nayib Bukele administration is an extreme example, as police and military officials arrested more than 75,000 suspected gang members from early 2022 through 2023 in a purge widely contested by human rights groups. Yet El Salvador’s claim that homicides dropped by nearly 70 percent during the same period helps explain the allure of militarized approaches no matter the erosion of due process of law. The risk of illegal detention and excessive force is even greater when the lines between local gangs, drug traffickers, terrorists, and insurgents becomes blurred, as Noboa’s rhetoric suggests.

The Drug War of Yore: Plan Colombia

Given the transnational reach of criminal networks, whether Ecuador can keep its worst offenders at bay and restore the peace without resorting to permanent militarization depends on how successful authorities are in mobilizing national resources and leveraging international expertise to empower and reform the country’s security forces. Fortunately, Noboa possesses a legislative majority to enable his security ambitions, and several countries have pledged assistance to help Ecuador confront the gangs. On this latter point, Washington, which committed to stepping up its support for the Ecuadorian government, can be an especially effective ally.

From 2000 to 2011, the U.S. government helped another South American country, Colombia, bounce back from wanton drug violence through generous aid aimed at professionalizing the country’s security institutions.  Plan Colombia, as the effort was known, entailed U.S. contributions of more than $8 billion directed at improving the mobility, intelligence, and oversight of the military and police to reduce drug-related terror and to dismantle the country’s myriad illegal armed groups.

By many measures, Plan Colombia was effective, with U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield declaring it “the most successful nation-building exercise by the United States in this century.” Even if the bilateral assistance plan failed to stem drug flows in the long run, it dramatically reduced violence, so much so that Noboa’s predecessor, Guillermo Lasso, lobbied Washington to launch a “Plan Ecuador” partnership modeled on the Colombian experience. In the wake of Noboa’s pledge to bring Ecuador’s gangs to justice, the Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board called for “something like Plan Colombia” in Ecuador.

Yet Ecuador is not Colombia. Bogotá’s principal threats were politically motivated insurgents who operated in the country’s hinterlands. A counterinsurgent footing in Ecuador is unlikely to have the same effect. Ecuador’s gangs are loosely organized, are not geographically rooted, and can opt for greater discretio n than the camouflage-clad rebel armies of the Plan Colombia era.

Likewise, Colombia is a cocaine production country, whereas Ecuador is primarily a cocaine transit country. Fighting among Colombia’s armed groups is rooted in turf rivalries to harvest drug crops, but in Ecuador, gangs compete for control over port access.

Further, sovereignty sensitivities over U.S.-supported operations in Ecuadorian territory have surfaced repeatedly over the last decade, a factor that did not weigh on policymakers in approving and implementing Plan Colombia. Although the spirit of shared responsibility for the regional drug crisis and the bilateral cooperation mechanisms that underpinned Plan Colombia can be instructive, there are clear limits to drawing inspiration from Ecuador’s northern neighbor.

Lessons Learned: The Mérida Initiative

Instead, as I explore in my forthcoming book, the U.S. and Ecuadorian governments should look to the lessons and pitfalls of another multi-billion-dollar security assistance package, the Mérida Initiative in Mexico. From 2007 to 2021, Washington and Mexico City channeled unprecedented resources to “break the power and impunity of criminal organizations” in response to escalating cartel aggression. Although the framework improved information-sharing and deepened cross-border cooperation, it failed to reduce violence, with Mexico’s homicide rate peaking in 2019. Still, the magnitude of Ecuador’s challenges is akin to those confronted by Mexico, offering clues to how policymakers might structure their approach for stifling crime and corruption in the South American nation .

First, the deliberate targeting of Mexican cartel kingpins tended to exacerbate societal violence rather than reduce it, as existing rivalries resulted in fighting over who should replace leaders who had been killed or arrested. Where groups splintered after a leadership transition, the atomization of illegal armed power made violence patterns less predictable and pacification strategies more difficult. Alternatively, some of the most propitious operations against criminal groups targeted their cash flow, underscoring the supreme importance of financial intelligence for disrupting transactions, seizing assets, and arresting prominent cartel allies.

Second, successful strategies to improve security forces’ effectiveness incorporated the preferences and oversight of Mexican business leaders, who had grown weary of the violence and frustrated with the declining investment climate. In Ciudad Juárez and Monterrey, security taxes shouldered by the local private sector financed reformed police forces, community programs to prevent cartel recruitment, and infrastructure projects to improve citizen safety. In Ecuador, international assistance can be a helpful starting point for revamping agencies and strategies, but whether Quito can sustain progress in the long run will depend on national contributions to the government’s security plan.

Third, the bureaucratic fragmentation of Mexico’s security institutions rendered coordinated action among the military services and between the military and the police unworkable. In its federal system, Mexico has more than 1,800 police forces at three levels of government, but fails to enforce common standards of conduct, training, and pay among them, making the least professional organizations easy prey for drug gangs. Historical distrust between the army and the navy also prevented intelligence sharing across the government. Crime reduction strategies require a united front among security and justice institutions — one enabled by background checks on personnel, routine coordination meetings between state security forces, and integrated operations. This will be especially true for Ecuador, where authorities transitioned to a decentralized policing model in 2012.

Finally, partisan political debate in Mexico derailed successive presidents from implementing robust security strategies, and opposition leaders identified electoral advantages in campaigning against incumbent anti-crime policies and politicians’ ties to the U.S. government at the national and local levels. In the absence of consensus on how to deal with leading threats, security investments rarely carried over from one presidential or mayoral term to the next, stunting even successful measures in the name of political tribalism. In Ecuador, as in Colombia and Mexico, success will be hard to come by if gang violence — or the Noboa administration’s deepening relationship with international benefactors like the United States — acquires an electoral logic.


For the moment, Ecuador’s president has the support of a broad coalition of political currents, both at home and abroad. The National Assembly went as far as issuing a declaration extending amnesty from prosecution to police and military personnel cracking down on the gangs. Even former President Rafael Correa, who oversaw a controversial program that legalized gangs as social organizations, pledged his support, albeit conditionally, for Noboa’s plan of action and called for national unity. Only days later, Correa, whose party represents the largest bloc in the legislature, publicly exchanged personal barbs with Noboa and reminded the president that his backing is far from being a “blank check.”

With the wind in his sails, Noboa should make haste. As the country gears up for another general election in 2025, and as the security situation possibly worsens before it gets better, the goodwill he currently enjoys — and the opportunity to deliver long-needed reforms — may be short lived. By following cartel cash, harnessing the resources of big business, fostering intra-governmental trust, and sustaining legislative consensus, Ecuador stands its best chance at turning the page on runaway crime and proving a model for neighbors struggling to stem regional insecurity.


Paul J. Angelo, Ph.D., (@pol_ange) is the director of the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University and the author of the forthcoming Council on Foreign Relations book From Peril to Partnership: U.S. Security Assistance and the Bid to Stabilize Colombia and Mexico (Oxford University Press, 2024). He also serves as a foreign area officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Army photos by Staff Sgt. Matthew Griffith