Artevelde explains: Ecuador’s ongoing gang violence

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Credit: Artevelde University of Applied Sciences


Earlier this week, the Ecuadorian authorities recaptured Fabricio Colon Pico Suarez, the alleged leader of the notorious Los Lobos gang. His escape spotlights the South American country’s struggles with drug trafficking and gang violence, which has also expanded to Western countries.

Wait, who is Fabricio Colon Pico Suarez?

Fabricio Colon Pico Suarez, also known as Captain Pico, is the leader of the gang Los Lobos in Ecuador. The forty-four-year-old man is an extortionist, drug trafficker and one of the most wanted criminals in the country, according to the Ecuadorian authorities. He has been convicted of murder and drug possession, amongst other things.

In 2023, he was imprisoned for kidnapping. On January 8, 2024, huge riots broke out after the escape of another big gang leader and Fabricio Suarez escaped. A few months later, on April 22, he was captured by the Ecuadorian authorities after being recognized in public.

And Los Lobos?

Los Lobos is one of the 22 criminal gangs in Ecuador the military is authorized to target. It has more than 8000 members, which makes them the second-largest group. It’s mostly known for drug trafficking and its members being hitmen. It’s thought that they have ties with other Mexican drug cartels, according to Insight Crime. Originally, they were a part of Ecuador’s biggest criminal group, the Choneros. In 2020, they split up after the murder of the Choneros leader Jorge Luis Zambrano caused a void in leadership.  

What are the causes of gang violence in Ecuador?

Ecuador was known for being a peaceful country with a low crime rate, but it has changed into a narcotraffic nation over the years. The main reason for this is the location of the country. It is located between the two biggest drug-producing countries in the world: Colombia and Peru, and it shares 2097 kilometers of borders with them. A report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime stated that the drug market has risen by 23% over the last ten years.

A second reason is the poverty the country is dealing with. After the Covid-19 crisis, the poverty rate rose by 33 %, according to a report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Numbers from Ecuador’s National Institute of Statistics and Censuses highlight the problem, with 46% of Ecuadorians in rural areas living in poverty. When young people are confronted with poverty, they turn towards gangs for more opportunities to earn money, according to the research Social Psychology of Gangs.

In 2019, the leftist President Lenín Moreno betrayed his country by reversing the stance of the government and implementing strict rules leading to poverty. The gangs started to riot and clashed with the police and military, leading to 79 deaths in 2021.

What are the consequences of gang violence in Ecuador?

According to data from the World Bank, the homicide rate almost doubled in 2023 compared to 2022. The gangs have been killing other gang members besides judges, prosecutors, journalists, and policemen. The gangs take over prisons by threatening and bribing guards. This allows them to have access to weapons, drugs, and contacts with the outside world. They also control ports in the same way. If they do, they can export their drugs.

Credit: Statista

What has the government done against it?

The “Mano dura”, translated as “strong hand”, are strict policies. That is how Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa wants to stop gang violence. On January 8, a state of emergency was declared. This means the military deploys on the streets and in the prisons and a curfew is instated from 11:00 p.m. to 05:00 a.m. Coupled with this, he declared an internal armed conflict against 22 criminal groups. This allows the military to neutralize these groups.

His approach is similar to that of Nayib Bukele Ortez, the president of El Salvador. He was successful in decreasing crime and violence, with a homicide rate of 2.4 per 100,000 people in 2023. This is the lowest number in North and South America, except Canada. Even though his approach seems very successful, a report from Amnesty International highlights the human rights violations.

Likewise, Ecuadorians are critical of their government’s approach. According to political scientist Régis Dandoy, the problem should be tackled at the core. There is a need for more education, more employment, training of the police and equality. But the government doesn’t have enough money for this.

His government, elected in 2023 because of their campaign around safety, held a referendum. The Ecuadorian people voted in favour of nine questions focused on tightening security measures. Among these were more military control in the streets, a reform of the judiciary system, and longer prison sentences for criminals.

A strategy that worked in the past was the legalization of the largest street gangs. In 2007, the government led by the leftist President Rafael Correa recognized them as ‘urban youth organizations’ as part of its “Citizens’ Revolution”. This was a policy made to increase public safety with the lowest homicide rate of 5.6 in 2016 as a result. But after the betrayal of President Lenín Moreno, the people didn’t trust the government anymore.

What is the impact on other countries?

According to Régis Dandoy, a political scientist living in Ecuador, the impact on other countries is huge. In the countries where drugs are imported, more violence breaks out between gangs in a competition for money. The countries affected the most by Ecuador’s drug export are mainly rich countries located in Europe. The port of Antwerp is the main destination in Europe for drugs coming from South America. In 2023, 116  tons of cocaine were seized according to a press release from the Belgian Finance Minister, Vincent Van Peteghem.

De auteur

Evy Coeckelbergs

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Student international journalism, passionate about photography and exploring the world!