On Wednesday May 17th, Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso invoked a constitutional provision known as muerte cruzada, or “mutual death.” The move dissolves the parliament and enables Lasso to rule by decree for six months when new elections are held.
This political upheaval comes at a time of surging violence in Ecuador, driven largely by gang violence related to cocaine trafficking. Joining me to discuss the political crisis in Ecuador, explain what is driving a surge in violence in the county — and the connection between the Ecuador’s politics and rising crime is Glaeldys Gonzalez a fellow for the Latin America and Caribbean program at the international crisis group.
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Transcript edited for clarity
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:01:23] So to kick off, can you explain the circumstances that led Lasso to declare the sinister sounding muerte cruzada?
Glaeldys Gonzalez [00:03:10] Well, the muerte cruzada is a constitutional mechanism that was declared on 24 May. The move is essentially a presidential order and it has immediate effect and does not require previous court approval. But this decision from the current Ecuadorian government is the outcome of previous political struggles that it has faced. So this is not the first time that the government has faced this type of situation with the Congress.
[00:03:47] Lasso actually survived a previous impeachment vote last year after the opposition failed to gather the necessary votes in Congress to oust him, 92 votes out of 137. And there was also a request that was done by the opposition to recall his mandate. And we have to be clear that he has only been president two years and since the beginning of his government, he has faced very strong opposition in Congress and many have tried to end his government.
[00:04:34] So this has been an accumulation of these struggle and the result was effectively the call of the old mutual death. Lasso was facing a political trial, and he issued a decree just a few days before lawmakers were expected to vote. They were given until Saturday to remove him. So this will mark the end of his political lifeline. He previously had said that he would use this mechanism if Congress seemed to gather the necessary votes to end his government.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:23] So you have a Congress that’s dominated by parties that oppose lasso. These parties are mostly on the left. Lasso is more of a right-of-center or right-wing president of Ecuador. Essentially they were about to vote to impeach him or remove him from office and he precluded that vote by dissolving Congress in that muerte cruzada. That gave him six months to rule by decree ahead of new national elections. Do we know if he is going to stand for elections six months from now?
Glaeldys Gonzalez [00:06:04] No. He has made it very clear that he will not be running for the next general elections that are expected to be held in August, the first presidential round. But he did say that he will support any candidate from any coalition of his party.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:21] Okay. So his political career at this point seems to be over.
Glaeldys Gonzalez [00:06:27] Yes, that is correct.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:29] So this political upheaval in Ecuador comes at a time of unprecedented increase in violent crime. The murder rate in particular has skyrocketed since 2020. What is driving this terrible trend?
Glaeldys Gonzalez [00:06:48] Well, Ecuador is currently facing, as you mentioned, one of the highest homicide rates in the region. The country’s consecutively breaking its own records of homicide, of extortion rates. And the percentages of this increase is escalating as time passes. This is mainly due to power struggles or turf wars between local criminal groups that are involved, mainly in drug trafficking.
[00:07:24] There are around eight groups operating in the country who are fighting for parts of the supply chain to transport drugs outside of Ecuador and to ship them through Guayas, which is the most dangerous part of the country right now and where Guayaquil is. And that’s the main disputed territory for these different groups.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:54] And this is essentially a port right where the drugs are exported. What drugs are we? Talking about? Is it mostly cocaine?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:05] And you have these you said eight criminal gangs that are essentially engaged in turf wars over the control of the export of that cocaine. Is that right?
Glaeldys Gonzalez [00:08:17] Yes. And this is actually not a new situation for the country. Ecuador has historically been a transit country of drugs because it’s located between Colombia and Peru, the two most important drug producers in the world. And Ecuador has had that place of transit on drugs.
[00:08:40] But currently, we’re seeing a new dynamic in the country in the sense that Ecuador is moving from being a transit country to being a country where production is also taking place and distribution. And that’s where these different criminal groups enter. And they want to take advantage and control certain parts of that supply chain.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:07] So it’s more than just the export now. It’s other parts of the drug supply chain that these groups are fighting over. And you said this is a relatively new phenomenon. Just looking at historic trends in the number of homicides year by year from 2000 to last year to 2022, it seems that homicide rates — at least in the 2010s – were not particularly high. But now we’re seeing this just sudden and sharp increase in homicides due to new trends around the drug trade.
Glaeldys Gonzalez [00:09:46] At least 80% is due to these power struggles between these different groups and, of course, regular citizens that have nothing to do with the drug trade or the drug business in the country are caught up in that dynamic, especially in poor, marginalized areas in what appeal and also in these border provinces with Colombia like Esmeraldas.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:10:14] So this sharp increase in homicides in violence in Ecuador also does correspond with the last term in office. Were there specific policies that his government employed that perhaps exacerbated this trend?
Glaeldys Gonzalez [00:10:33] I would not put it that way. I would say that there was a lack of policies that paved the way for that increase because in the previous government of Moreno, there was dismantling of a security apparatus that was put in place and that was working to control the rise in criminality and violence. But when Lasso assumed office, there was no Minister of Interior and there were no strong institutions to tackle organized crime.
[00:11:17] And another element that is important to mention is that the country does not have a history of fighting this type of crime, this criminality that is related to drugs. So this has all been like an avalanche of this criminality and violence that the authorities have to somehow tackle. And so far it has been unsuccessful. There has been some policies that have been put in place, some new institutional or institutional framework, but none of them have had any real impact on reducing the homicide rates in the country.
[00:12:01] Also, there has been implementation of at least ten state of exceptions in these hotspots of violence — particularly Guayas and these border provinces I mention, especially Esmeraldas and the border with Colombia — but none of them have actually had any positive effect on reducing the violence.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:29] Essentially, it sounds like you’re saying that the Lasso government took what might be considered a “harder line” and sought to take on the gangs more head on with police and military action. But you’re saying that has just failed thus far?
Glaeldys Gonzalez [00:12:48] Yes. That has had no positive effect on actually reducing homicide rates. And this is all linked to the weak security institutions I mentioned or the lack of support. There’s also widespread corruption in the government, and there’s also these political disputes that have hampered any efforts or any attempts to make any progress.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:14] And the previous government, as you mentioned, enacted different kinds of policies that maybe took like a more softer approach to the problem of drug related organized crime. And that just looking at the data seemed to be more effective than this Lasso tough on crime stance.
Glaeldys Gonzalez [00:13:37] Well, yes, the facts were more positive, but we cannot compare them so easily because thepower that the criminal groups have now is so much stronger than it had at least three or five years ago. So the threat has become bigger and more robust, and that has been harder for any of the policies to actually make an impact or the law enforcement’s to actually make a change and change that dynamic in the country.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:14:17] What do you think could be done going forward to reduce the impact of organized crime related to the drugs trade? It seems that going forward, we have this new political opportunity in Ecuador with new elections and the current president stepping down. What sort of policies might help reduce the sting of violence in the country?
Glaeldys Gonzalez [00:14:48] Well, at least for now, until we have the new authorities of the new president and the new assembly at the end of the year, not much can be done. Lasso will only be able to decree laws on economic matters and nothing related to security except and these states of exception that I mentioned that are tough control measures. And those are the only policies that he can undertake right now that have not yielded any effective results, like I mentioned.
[00:15:25] And looking ahead with a new government in place, and that can be until at least the start of next year, I think it will be vital to continue with these law enforcement policies, but also put a focus on social and economic policies that can help or somehow give people that are in a vulnerable situation to not enter into the drug world and to see that there is at least an option outside this path economic opportunities, education opportunities.
[00:16:09] And that has so far not been done by the current government. To put a bigger weight on these other types of social economic policies and also rehabilitation programs specially targeted at youth because prisons have played and will continue to play a key role in the country’s security crisis. So I think those two lines are vital in looking ahead for the new government to adopt along with these law enforcement policies.
[00:16:43] And also I think it’s necessary to establish an institutional framework that’s more robust and that’s more clear to the different institutions that are part of preventing and acting on organized crime and activating these policies, because there is no clear or at least comprehensive security strategy so far. And this has also been an obstacle that authorities have not been able to overcome so far.
[00:17:25] So I think those elements are vital to target and to combat organized crime in the country. And another mechanism that could also serve to put in place is working, along with neighboring countries such as Colombia. There’s currently a security operation in place in the border to counteract the drug that is entering from Colombia to Ecuador. But I think it’s also necessary for an increase in this international cooperation with Peru and other regional countries.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:04] You mentioned just now the importance of prison reform. And in your crisis group report, I was sort of struck by the relationship between these mass arrests for relatively low level drugs, crimes. People are being put in prison, and once in prison they are sort of recruited, sometimes forcibly so into gangs. And the cycle seems to perpetuate itself in a very negative way. So it would seem that prison reform is almost a low hanging fruit here in terms of reducing the impact of gang related violence.
Glaeldys Gonzalez [00:18:47] Yes, prison reform would need to be at the center of our security strategy for the upcoming government. These different groups throughout the country, they dispute for also for control within the prisons. And that’s where some of the violence comes from, from the disputes to control the drug business, from inside to outside the facilities. And so we have seen that prison massacres have become recurrent.
[00:19:15] In fact, the same day that the mutual death was announced, three reported incidents were registered in different prisons where security agents were held hostage. So this dynamic in prisons has pretty much gotten out of control from authorities. And I think a prison reform is essential to at least counteract the power that these groups have in prisons and that they are able to translate outside of prisons and control the drug business.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:53] You know, as the country prepares for new national elections in August and beyond, are there any indicators that you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you whether or not the situation — in terms of the prevalence of violent crime — is getting any better or any worse beyond simply the data? Are there trends or inflection points that you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you what the future may hold for Ecuador?
Glaeldys Gonzalez [00:20:27] I think one of the main elements to be looking at is the humanitarian situation, because this security crisis that has been triggered by these disputes. And now on top of that, we’re seeing in the country political turmoil has triggered a mass migrant flow out of Ecuador. In fact, Ecuadorians were last year the second most common nationality crossing through the Darién Gap because of the situation and also because they were unable to carry on with their normal lives in their local communities.
[00:21:09] They were facing extortion from these groups. Even small street vendors had to pay some type of what they call vacuna to any of the members of these groups and the control that these groups are progressively acquiring in these local poor communities. I think that will also be important to be looking at if it extends, because right now it’s mostly concentrated in southern parts of Guayas, in Guayaquil, and also in Esmeraldas, principally because that’s where the drug enters the country.
[00:21:52] But it will be worrying to see that this violence replicates and resonates in other provinces of the country that have not seen the violence before and in larger and more prisons as other spaces where the violence is also being carried away. So I think those are important elements to be looking out ahead and to measure where the situation is heading.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:21] And just a quick clarification. You just said that Ecuadorians following Venezuelans were the second largest nationality that are crossing the Darién Gap. This, for listeners who aren’t aware, is this sort of narrow stretch of land in southern Panama that connects Central America to South America. And it’s the main sort of route from which migrants that are typically headed to the United States need to travel through if they’re coming from South America to travel north.
[00:22:52] And it’s fascinating that Ecuador, which is a relatively small country, is now accounting for the second largest number of migrants passing through that very dangerous passage.
Glaeldys Gonzalez [00:23:04] Yes, I’ve even read some testimonies that they said that they were rather crossed the Darién Gap with all that implies that they’re even putting their life in danger in that jungle they can run out of food. There are groups that are in operating in that space can also take advantage of the reporting of your situation. And despite that danger that they can put themselves in, they said that they would rather do that and have at least the hope of improving the quality of their life in the United States than staying in Ecuador. So that’s where we see the gravity of the security problem in the country.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:49] Thank you so much for your time. This is very helpful.