Mon. Jul 15th, 2024
The political violence that is developing in Ecuador make it urgent to restore public confidence in the country's institutions and democratic system. Image: EEAS, 2023

Brussels, 14 August 2023

Last week, Ecuador has been plunged into disarray with the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio one of the leading presidential candidates and outspoken critic of corruption and drug trafficking. To improve the lives of citizens and defend democracy in Europe and Latin America, the EU and the LAC region need to fight together the organised crime more effectively.

Villavicencio’s assassination has brought international attention to the growing challenges of transnational organised crime in Ecuador, a country of 18 million people on the Pacific coast of Latin America. I immediately called my Ecuadorian counterpart to express solidarity and the EU’s commitment to reinforce its support in the fight against violence and for peaceful democratic elections.

Ecuador has become an important export hub for drugs

Like other Latin American countries, Ecuador has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has had lasting effects, resulting in higher poverty rates, widening inequalities and rising unemployment. Sharing borders with the world’s largest cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has become an important export hub for drugs bound for North America and Europe, departing from the port of Guayaquil to Antwerp, Rotterdam or Valencia. Drug seizures have soared. According to UNODC, in 2021 Ecuador was the country with the third most seizures of illicit drugs in the world (7%) after Colombia (41%) and the US (11%). In 2022, close to 200 tonnes were seized in the country, the second highest amount in the history of Ecuador. Recently, Ecuador has also increasingly become a consumption country, which has further accelerated local criminality and violence, particularly amidst the acute economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

“Major cartels from Mexico and other faraway places like Albania have built alliances with local gangs, leading to an unprecedented wave of violence.”

Major cartels from Mexico and criminal groups from other faraway places like Albania have penetrated the prison system and built alliances with local gangs. This has led to an unprecedented wave of violence. The homicide rate reached 26 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2022, the second highest in South America, behind only Venezuela. This translated into 13 homicides per day last year. Since the beginning of 2023, the situation has worsened further with the rate rising to 17 murders per day. Other criminal activities like money laundering, smuggling and trafficking of arms and persons, have also developed, often in connection to the drug traffic. The country has witnessed a series of horrific prison riots, resulting in hundreds of killings of prisoners. Inter-gang violence has plagued prisons and corruption has permeated the state. Government efforts to regain control of the prisons and contain waves of violence in the coastal regions have started to become effective, but a lot remains to be done.

Extreme political polarisation

Last May, in a context of extreme political polarisation exacerbated by the growing security challenges, President Lasso faced a possible impeachment by the Ecuadorian Congress. He decided to make use of article 148 of the Constitution, dissolving the National Assembly and triggering snap presidential and legislative elections that will take place on 20 August. Organising general elections in such a short space of time has been a big challenge for the authorities, aggravated by organised crime’s violence against political leaders. Even before last week’s atrocity, ten attacks against mayors and municipal officials had already been registered this year, including the assassination of Agustín Intriago, the mayor of the city of Manta, on July 23, which caused a public uproar in the country.

“The political violence that is developing in Ecuador make it urgent to restore public confidence in the country’s institutions and democratic system.”

Villavicienco’s assassination and the political violence that is developing in Ecuador make it urgent to restore public confidence in the country’s institutions and democratic system. This will be the task of the new government and the new national assembly, who must, much more than in recent years, learn to work together, beyond their differences, in the interests of the country.

This starts with the need for citizens to have confidence in elections. This is why the EU has been supporting the relevant institutions by deploying an independent EU mission of electoral experts to observe the electoral process, and assisting in training hundreds of independent domestic observers.

The EU is supporting actively the security sector in Ecuador

The EU and its member states are also supporting actively the security sector in Ecuador through regional programmes aimed at fighting transnational organised crime (ELPacCTOCopoladEurofrontSeacop, etc.). In addition, we have developed specific cooperation activities such as emergency support for prison security in Ecuador and, soon, support for port security in Guayaquil. The signature, expected in autumn, of a data exchange agreement between Europol and its Ecuadorian partners will further strengthen real-time cooperation. This strong EU commitment on security was confirmed in February by the visit of my colleague Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner for Home Affairsaccompanied by her Belgian colleague Annelies Verlinden.

The security response is key but so is tackling the factors that make people more vulnerable to crime, such as widespread poverty and lack of employment opportunities for young people. In this area too Ecuador can count on the support of the EU through our trade agreement, that generates a trade surplus for Ecuador of over €1 billion per year, and our development cooperation.

A comprehensive bi-regional agenda

On 17 and 18 July, the EU and CELAC held a summit in Brusselsthe first in eight years. Strengthening the links between our two regions is currently one of my main priorities. To achieve this, we have developed a comprehensive bi-regional agenda to be implemented following the summit. As several Latin American and Caribbean leaders highlighted at the summit, strengthening our cooperation in the fight against organised crime must be a key part of this agenda. Leaders agreed to strengthen the EU-LAC Partnership on Justice and Security and improve the EU-CELAC Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism on Drugs.

“Strengthening our cooperation in the fight against organised crime must be a key part of the EU-LAC agenda.”

In that matter, “su lucha es nuestra lucha”. The same international gangs and their local affiliates, are at work on both sides, generating the same forms of crime. Record cocaine seizures by the Ecuadorian authorities over the last years have been matched by record seizures in European ports. In 2022, 110 tons were confiscated in the port of Antwerp alone, 60% of which came directly from Ecuador.

Drug trafficking, and the other forms of illicit trafficking intimately linked with it, are a threat to all societies, not only in Ecuador and Latin America but also in Europe. The corruption they fuel undermines democracy everywhere. To be able to improve the lives of citizen on both sides of the Atlantic and defend democracy in Europe and Latin America, we need to fight drug trafficking together more effectively.

Ecuador may seem very far away from Europe but a part of our future depends on the fight waged in this country to defend democracy against organised crime.

Source – EEAS

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