How does Ecuador’s Internal Armed Conflict End?


Once a pacific sea in a notoriously violent region Ecuador’s is a story of paradise lost. Prison riots. Cocaine. And cartels. The world’s insatiable demand for the drug has destabilized countries and has prompted Ecuador to use the military to quell civil unrest.

The afternoon edition of Ecuador’s state-owned TC news proceeded like any other day, with segments on sports, weather, and, of course, politics — until masked and hooded gunmen burst into the studio, completing a hostile takeover televised live to a shocked nation. During a harrowing public broadcast lasting nearly 20 minutes, members of the Tiguerones gang brandished automatic rifles, pistols, sticks of dynamite, and even machetes and grenades. “We are live on air,” one gang member declared. “Know that you should not mess with the mafia!”

Few vignettes more aptly capture Ecuador’s dramatic descent into criminal violence. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ecuador has been caught in a riptide of criminal violence. To juxtapose two snapshots in time, the country’s homicide rate in 2019 was 6.7 per 100,000, placing it on par with major metropolitan areas in the United States, such as Los Angeles; meanwhile, Ecuador’s estimated homicide rate as 2023 drew to a close was 45 per 100,000, putting it in the company of the region’s outliers like Venezuela. Since 2016, the country’s homicide rate has skyrocketed by a jaw-dropping 500 percent.



The principal reasons for Ecuador’s rapid escalation in violence are well known. Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, has emerged as an epicenter for cocaine trafficking in Latin America. It is the preferred embarkation point for much of the world’s maritime (and eventually, trans-Atlantic) cocaine flows. By 2019, it is estimated that one-third of Colombia’s cocaine exited the port of Guayaquil, and the homicides followed shortly thereafter, with more than half the country’s murders occurring in coastal provinces. According to the 2023 report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, both cocaine consumption and production are at “record levels,” and Ecuador finds itself sandwiched between Colombia and Peru, the world’s top producers of coca. A recent record seizure of 22 tons of cocaine is less a sign of improved interdiction and more likely an indication of record volumes transiting Ecuador. One additional element might be that Ecuador dollarized its economy in 2000, taming its crippling double-digit inflation but also obviating the need for drug traffickers’ money-laundering operations to engage in currency conversion.

Beyond these domestic factors, there are important international dimensions. Many of Ecuador’s gangs have allied themselves with powerful patrons in Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela, replicating locally some of the criminal rivalries found in those countries. For instance, Los Choneros, one of Ecuador’s most powerful criminal organizations, work with the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s largest; meanwhile, Los Lobos, the Choneros’ top rival, are believed to work with the Jalisco New Generation cartel, Sinaloa’s top rival. Thus, Ecuador’s conflict is likely to unfold on two fronts: contestation between criminal organizations, and battles between organizations and the Ecuadorian state.

Promising to “neutralize” these criminal organizations, recently inaugurated President Daniel Noboa has signaled a commitment to a familiar iron-fisted approach to crime fighting. The terror unleashed nationwide in recent weeks has witnessed Ecuadorians and their political class unite behind Noboa and the idea of eliminating the existential threat posed by criminal organizations. One recent poll placed Noboa’s approval rating near 80 percent. But there are no easy answers to Ecuador’s burgeoning criminal groups.  Lacking clear victory conditions, and facing groups that are armed and prepared for conflict with the state,  the Noboa government’s impassioned rhetoric might give way to a permanent state of exception, with grave implications for democracy and human rights.

Reap What You Sow

The origins of Ecuador’s current security crisis were sown largely during the presidency of Rafael Correa, a combative leftist-nationalist first elected in 2007. To stem violence, Correa pacted with gangs and allowed them to gain legal recognition as community groups. Organizations like the Latin Kings received recognition under Correa but as of Jan. 9 featured on the Noboa administration’s list of 22 groups deemed “terrorist organizations.” Simultaneously, under the guise of reclaiming sovereignty, Correa curtailed counternarcotics cooperation with the United States.

Correa’s successor, Vice President Lenín Moreno, sought an institutional course correction. Focused on a political response to Correa’s presidency rather than a security response, Moreno slashed security funding and dismantled several state institutions critical to crime fighting, even as the country’s overcrowded prisons continued to swell while criminal organizations penetrated the highest echelons of key ministries. Meanwhile, Ecuador’s criminal organizations succeeded in consolidating a coveted position in the global narcotics supply chain. Then came the devastation wrought by COVID-19 and a concomitant criminal bonanza, as Ecuador’s economy contracted by nearly 8 percent in 2020 and weak social safety nets saw vulnerable youth fall prey to gang recruitment drives.

By the time President Guillermo Lasso took office in 2021, the contours of Ecuador’s nightmare had taken shape. Some 50,000 Ecuadorians belonged to a criminal group, and frequent and grisly prison riots throughout Lasso’s presidency heralded shifts in the country’s criminal underworld. The problem for Lasso was not political will — he called for an ambitious “Plan Ecuador,” akin to Plan Colombia and replete with assistance from the United States and other international partners. However, Lasso inherited institutions shot through with corruption and compounded Ecuador’s challenges by succumbing to a security policy that often appeared as if the government was playing a game of whac-a-mole. High-level positions in security posts were fleeting. Lasso’s abbreviated presidency featured six different prison directors and four interior ministers. His term ended when, rather than face near-certain impeachment, he disbandedEcuador’s congress and resigned preemptively, triggering snap elections to determine who would carry out the remaining year and a half of his term.

Ecuador reached its boiling point during the election that ensued, when popular anticorruption candidate Fernando Villavicencio, who had vowed to “finish off the mafias,” was assassinated exiting a campaign event. Not even his assassins could be tried in Ecuador’s failing justice system. All were themselves killed while imprisoned and awaiting trial. To many Ecuadorians, this criminal conspiracy served to confirm what an ongoing and sprawling investigation by Attorney General Diana Salazar has been revealing — a metastasis of corruption at the highest levels of government. Salazar’s investigation has ensnared judges, police officials, and major figures in the country’s prison system for abetting criminals. In their latest drive to confront Ecuador’s justice system, criminal organizations assassinated César Suárez, a prosecutor investigating the Tiguerones’ recent takeover of the TC news station in Guayaquil.

Thus, Noboa finds himself in a nearly impossible position. With the entire country a powder keg, few good options remaining, and limited state capacity, he has appealed to Ecuadorians and pushed a referendum to ramp up efforts against criminal organizations, including the use of extradition — suspended under Correa — seizure of criminal assets, and building additional maximum security prison facilities. The Joseph Biden administration has also moved quickly to provide security assistance and equipment. Now the violence that gripped the country the week of Jan. 8 appears set to push these plans into overdrive.

From Plan Ecuador to Plan Bukele?

On Monday, Jan. 8, José Adolfo Macías Villamar, leader of Los Choneros, escaped from his jail cell shortly before his planned transfer to a maximum-security prison. In the hours that followed, it seemed the government response would follow a well-established pattern. Noboa declared a state of exception, as had been done on numerous occasions by his predecessors, and security forces surged to hunt for the fugitive. The events that transpired after the state of exception, however, exceeded even the grim standards set by recent events in Ecuador. Criminal groups declared war on the government — abandoning their typical reticence do so in the face of Ecuador’s manifest state weakness — their pronouncements punctuated by the sound of car bombs detonating in the capital of Quito and the city of Cuenca. Prisoners rioted and took scores of guards and prison staff as hostages, executing several, while schoolchildren fled the sounds of encroaching gunfire in the streets. The capture of TC news brought this miasma of violence to a head in an almost-surreal display of just how far the security situation had deteriorated.

Such unprecedented actions by criminal groups demanded a sharper response from the government, leading Noboa to abandon the failed formula of the past and announce a state of “internal armed conflict.” The implications of this announcement should not be understated. For one, it  suggests Ecuador may be prepared to treat criminals in the same way it would enemy combatants engaged in irregular warfare, a move that could have vast human rights implications. At a basic level, it would likely make the actions of the Ecuadorian security forces subject to international humanitarian law, a standard that appears to offer unreliable protection against civilian casualties and wartime abuses. In the short term, Noboa is likely to rule by decree and use the country’s newfangled political unity to govern during the 60-day window of the decree’s initial validity. These actions signal a major break in Noboa’s security policy from that of his predecessor.

Whereas Noboa initially took office disposed to continue former president Lasso’s “Plan Ecuador” efforts, the estimated $200 million U.S. security assistance package currently being negotiated is primarily a long-term investment in Ecuador’s security institutions. Noboa’s pro-U.S. stance means that cooperation between Washington and Quito will continue, providing the United States important influence over how Ecuador develops its security response, but efforts to train and equip Ecuador’s security forces are unlikely to deliver the short-term reductions in violence Noboa is under pressure to produce.

Rather than the Plan Ecuador model, the violence unleashed in early January appears to be increasing the allure of “Plan Bukele,” the colloquial term describing El Salvador’s extreme approach to public safety under President Nayib Bukele. At its core, Plan Bukele promises to reduce violence through mass incarceration, suspension of the right to due process, and a militarized approach to civil security made possible through a de facto permanent state of exception. These ingredients are not dissimilar to previous hardline, or mano dura, security policies. However, Bukele seems to have cracked the code. While other attempts to harshly punish criminality and wield military force against gangs produced ephemeral reductions in violence before reverting to the mean, El Salvador has seen sustained and precipitous reductions in its previously astronomical homicide rates for nearly two straight years.

As of 2023, El Salvador’s government reported a homicide rate of 2.4 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, less than half that of the United States. Bukele’s success in curbing his country’s murder rate has drawn imitators and adherents as close as neighboring Honduras and as far away as the Southern Cone. Indeed, one of Noboa’s rivals for the presidency campaigned explicitly on a pledge to import Plan Bukele to Ecuador. Evidently, for many in Latin America suffering terrible violence, the question is not whether Bukele’s security policy is moral, but whether it is exportable.

All incentives seem aligned for Noboa to test how well Plan Bukele travels. The attacks of Jan. 8 and 9 have made inaction tantamount to political suicide. There is a rare moment of unity in an otherwise deeply divided legislature. And with a truncated term, Noboa faces immense pressure to deliver results — and quickly. Yet the new president’s current course of action faces monumental obstacles and a lack of strategic clarity in articulating metrics of success.

“Plan Phoenix:” How Does It End?

Noboa has eschewed the use of either Plan Ecuador or Plan Bukele to describe his policy, opting instead to unveil “Plan Phoenix” as his comprehensive security strategy. At present, there is little public detail about the plan aside from its name, seemingly intended to evoke a country rising from the ashes of criminality and violence. Nevertheless, if Noboa is looking to El Salvador for inspiration, the promised phoenix is liable to remain buried.

To begin, Ecuador’s criminal groups are more sophisticated, heavily armed, and bucking for a fight than El Salvador’s criminals were at the outset of Plan Bukele. Indeed, prior to the crackdown, Bukele had engaged in secret negotiationswith gangs, turning a blind eye to illicit activity in exchange for promises to keep murder rates low. Thus, the sudden change in the Salvadoran state’s position on the gangs came as a surprise, causing many leaders to elect to lie low rather than resist El Salvador’s security forces.

The same is not true in Ecuador, where criminal groups have long directly opposed the state and furnished themselves with the cash and weapons to do so. Far from being cowed by security measures, some gangs seem to relish the chance to square off against the government, as evidenced by the declarations of war and sophisticated terror tactics that accompanied the Jan. 8 state of exception announcement. These groups are entrenched in transnational criminal networks, with powerful foreign patrons comprising an illicit supply chain feeding cash, guns, and explosives into the country. Many have weathered past states of exception and likely possess at least some degree of familiarity with the tactics used by Ecuadorian military and police forces in counter-gang operations. As Salazar’s unfolding investigation has underscored, many have also proven adept at infiltrating or corrupting Ecuador’s security forces, granting them insider knowledge of the government’s plans. Without the element of strategic surprise, Ecuador’s criminal groups will likely be able to insulate themselves and their operations against the worst of the crackdown, ready to fight the government where necessary to preserve their control over important territories like the port of Guayaquil and overland smuggling routes.

A second concern is Ecuador’s ability to reestablish control over its prison system. This stands out as a key ingredient in the success of Plan Bukele, as El Salvador was able to more than double its incarceration rate in a short period of time without seeing its jails become recruiting and coordinating bases for gangs. This was achieved through an array of measures including housing members of different gangs in the same cell blocks, prohibiting visitation rights for families, and cutting off cellular access inside prisons — tactics that have left an estimated 153 dead and attracted widespread outcry. Even if Ecuador were to emulate such draconian practices, its prison environment is by some metrics even harder to control than El Salvador’s was before 2021. Since 2021 in Ecuador, at least 460 inmates have been killed in a string of prison massacres, and takeover of several prisons by gang members on Jan. 9 suggests that criminal influence is firmly entrenched within the penal system.

Noboa is seeking to rectify this challenge through the construction of a new mega-prison modeled on Bukele’s 40,000-capacity Terrorism Confinement Center. On the campaign trail Noboa even floated the use of prison ships to contain the country’s most dangerous offenders offshore. Yet reasserting control over prisons, let alone constructing new ones, will take time to bear fruit. In the short term, Ecuador will need to figure out what to do — and fast — with the nearly 2,000 (and counting) new prisoners detained in the course of the first week of its “internal armed conflict.”

Finally, while proclaiming a state of internal war communicates resolve and determination in the face of violent criminal organizations, the victory conditions for the Noboa government are eminently uncertain. Criminal groups are more likely to splinter than capitulate in the face of state pressure. Often the ensuing power struggles only drive up levels of violence as breakaway factions vie for the territories and illicit rents once controlled by their parent group. Mexico is one such case where the pursuit of a decapitation or “kingpin” strategy in the late 2000s has left the country with a fragmented and increasingly violent criminal panorama. Noboa will have to balance the short-term desire for photo ops with the need to aim at the middle operational layer of criminal organizations. Alternatively, Ecuador’s war on crime may push some of the 22 newly minted terrorist groups into alliances of convenience against the government.

The lack of clear victory conditions or benchmarks for success in Plan Pheonix risks making Ecuador dependent upon apermanent suspension of rights and sustaining an indefinite wartime footing, which itself leaves psychological scars and has tangible economic consequences for the country. Deploying the military to fight criminal groups might very well produce temporary decreases in violence, but without a strategic vision to dismantle organized crime, these gains will likely prove ephemeral and necessitate continued states of exception.

While failure to achieve a short-term reduction in violence is liable to exacerbate Ecuador’s current political instability, success as defined by the Bukele model might also prove a poisoned chalice. Should Ecuador choose to trade civil liberties for security, it might eventually find itself with neither, as criminal groups fight back and the policies once intended for emergencies become the norm.


Ryan C. Berg is director of the Americas Program and head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Henry Ziemer is a research associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies Americas Program.

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