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Democracy and Security Concerns for South America: Implications of Cartel Control in Ecuador and El Salvador

By William Gonzalez 


Overview 

The intertwined challenges of democracy and security in South America are starkly evident in the complex dynamics of cartel control in Ecuador and El Salvador. In Ecuador, a multifaceted criminal landscape marked by territorial disputes and diverse funding streams presents a daunting challenge for law enforcement. Outbreaks of violence, including deadly prison riots, underscore the profound challenges facing the Ecuadorian government. Meanwhile, in El Salvador, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs have long posed significant security threats, undermining democratic institutions via corruption and violence. Salvadorian President Nayib Bukele’s aggressive security crackdowns have temporarily weakened the cartels but have raised concerns about human rights abuses and democratic erosion. Both countries grapple with the implications of militarized responses, the fragility of their prison systems, and finding the balance between security measures and democratic principles.


A Complicated Criminal Landscape in Ecuador 

The presence of numerous gangs characterizes Ecuador’s criminal landscape, each boasting significant territorial control and diverse funding streams. The current fragmentation of criminal structures from infighting for complete region control has led to the emergence of new groups, exacerbating the challenge for law enforcement agencies. Fluid alliances among criminal organizations further complicate efforts to combat organized crime, with tactical short-term alliances aimed at demonstrating cartel power to the government and citizens.


Within Ecuador’s correctional facilities, criminal gangs wield unprecedented power, running lucrative enterprises and exerting influence far beyond prison walls. Recent outbreaks of violence, including deadly riots, underscore the profound challenge facing the government of President Daniel Noboa. The Penitenciaría del Litoral and Regional correctional facilities, housing over 10,000 inmates combined, epitomize this issue, with inmates controlling operations and criminal activities both inside and outside the prison complex. Penitenciaría del Litoral is the largest prison in Ecuador sitting on the outskirts of Guayaquil. 


Seven prominent criminal gangs dominate Ecuador’s prisons, each controlling specific units within the facilities. Los Choneros, led by José Adolfo Macías (“Fito”), holds sway over the Regional facilities. Similarly, the Penitenciaría is divided among the Chone Killers, Águilas, Fatales, Latin Kings, Lobos, Tiguerones, and the Mafia. The first prison massacre in February 2021 marked the onset of a security crisis, challenging successive governments’ ability to assert control over the prisons. Corruption within the prison system facilitates the influx of contraband, including weapons, drugs, and alcohol. Economic motives drive conflicts between gangs, with lucrative illicit businesses generating significant revenue. The model observed in Guayaquil’s prisons has been replicated across correctional facilities nationwide, with gangs like Los Lobos vying for dominance. Prisons in Cotopaxi, Quito, Cuenca, Machala, and Chimborazo reflect similar dynamics, amplifying the challenge of organized crime both inside and outside Ecuador’s prison system.


The storming of a public television station in Guayaquil by armed assailants during a live broadcast signals the gravity of the situation, prompting President Daniel Noboa to declare Ecuador’s entry into an “internal armed conflict.” Masked gunmen wielding firearms and explosives interrupted a live news program on TC Television in Guayaquil, instigating chaos and fear among viewers. The armed intruders’ motives remain unclear, but their brazen actions underscore Ecuador’s escalating security crisis. Despite the station’s signal being cut off, the ordeal unfolded in full view of the nation, leaving witnesses and personnel traumatized. President Daniel Noboa’s classification of 22 groups as “terrorist organizations” underscores the gravity of the situation, although experts question the accuracy of this categorization. Despite these aggressive actions, an important aspect of the equation is missing, and analyzing the current situation in El Salvador provides a better picture of how such a system can grow and dominate a nation into extreme action. 


El Salvador’s Fight Back

El Salvador has been grappling with the pervasive influence of cartels, particularly the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 gangs, for decades. These criminal organizations have not only posed significant security threats but have also undermined democratic institutions through corruption and violence. However, recent government efforts, spearheaded by President Nayib Bukele, have sought to curb their power through aggressive security crackdowns.


These organizations originated in the United States but gained strength and influence in El Salvador following waves of deportations of Central American immigrants, many of whom had ties to these gangs. Over the years, the cartels expanded their reach, engaging in various criminal activities such as extortion, drug trafficking, and territorial control, particularly in urban areas. The gangs’ presence in El Salvador was characterized by widespread violence, intimidation, and extortion, which terrorized communities and undermined the rule of law. Despite previous government efforts to combat them through strategies like “mano dura” (iron fist), the cartels remained resilient and continue to pose significant challenges to security and stability in the country. This would all come to a considerable end with the mitigating efforts of an overreaching executive. 


In response to escalating gang violence, President Nayib Bukele launched a relentless security crackdown in March 2022, marking one of the most aggressive efforts in the country’s history to debilitate the cartels. Bukele declared a state of emergency, granting security forces unprecedented powers, including the authority to make arrests without due process under a suspension of constitutional rights. Under Bukele’s leadership, security forces conducted extensive raids and arrested over 77,000 individuals, significantly disrupting cartel operations and dismantling their street-level structures. The crackdown, distinguished by its speed and scale, dealt a severe blow to the gangs, driving violence to historic lows and providing relief to communities previously overrun by cartel activities.


Implications for Security 

In Ecuador, the escalating conflict between the government and criminal organizations has precipitated a surge in violence, including prison riots, attacks on security forces, and intimidation tactics targeting civilians. The geographical reach of these gangs, extending even to traditionally secure areas like the capital, Quito, poses a significant challenge to government resources. Moreover, the gangs’ diversified funding streams, including drug trafficking, human smuggling, and extortion, present a formidable obstacle to efforts aimed at cutting off their financial support.


The Port of Guayaquil has emerged as a focal point in Ecuador’s recent unrest. Situated between major coca producers Peru and Colombia, the Port of Guayaquil plays a central role in the country’s violence, serving as the primary global export port for drugs. Despite the limited implementation of anti-drug scanners in 2023, only 20 percent of the 300,000 containers leaving the port for Europe each month can be inspected. Following the violence, the National Directorate of Aquatic Spaces has implemented changes to the security levels of Ecuador’s ports. Effective immediately, the security level has been raised from Level 1 to Level 2. This adjustment involves the enforcement of additional protection measures for a specified period due to an elevated risk of events impacting maritime security. 


The drug trafficking organizations exploit the fragility of the export control system, using shipments of bananas and cocoa—Ecuador’s main exports—as a maritime transport method for illegal substances. These gangs, vying for territorial control in the capital, take advantage of the fruit export system's vulnerabilities and exploit public authorities' protocols to facilitate the transportation of illicit goods out of the country. Furthermore, the militarized response by the government, while initially effective in quelling violence, lacks a clear exit strategy, raising concerns about the sustainability of the approach. The reliance on short-term interventions without addressing underlying structural issues, such as institutional capacity building and social reforms, risks perpetuating the cycle of violence and instability.


Much of the same can be said for El Salvador. The aggressive measures have temporarily crippled the cartels, reducing their capacity to engage in criminal activities and hold territory. However, the possibility of a resurgence remains, as remnants of the gangs may adapt to their new realities and exploit existing vulnerabilities. Additionally, there remains a serious need to address the current prison system. Severe overcrowding and reports of abuses within the prison system highlight systemic issues that need to be confronted. Failure to improve prison conditions may exacerbate criminality and radicalization within correctional facilities.


Implications for Democracy

The erosion of democratic norms and institutions in Ecuador and El Salvador is evident in the government’s unilateral declaration of war on criminal organizations, bypassing legislative oversight, judicial integrity, and accountability mechanisms. The militarization of the conflict raises concerns about the potential abuse of human rights and the rule of law. The government’s proposed measures, including pardons for security personnel involved in operations, underscore the challenges to maintaining democratic principles amid heightened security concerns. Moreover, the influx of international aid and security cooperation, particularly from the United States, raises questions about sovereignty and the potential for external influence on Ecuador’s and El Salvador’s domestic affairs. While such assistance may provide short-term support in addressing security challenges, it also highlights South America’s dependency on external actors and the need for greater transparency and accountability in managing aid funds.


Bukele’s consolidation of power and circumvention of institutional checks and balances raise alarms about democratic backsliding. The use of emergency measures to suppress dissent and target political opponents sets a dangerous precedent for democratic governance. The government’s disregard for human rights violations and its efforts to stifle dissent undermines accountability and transparency. The suppression of independent media outlets further restricts public access to information and public oversight. Sustainable solutions to security challenges in El Salvador require addressing the underlying socio-economic factors that continue to contribute to gang violence. Neglecting to tackle issues such as poverty, inequality, and lack of opportunities will continue to perpetuate cycles of violence and instability.


Looking Forward

The challenges of democracy and security in South America, as exemplified by the implications of cartel control in Ecuador and El Salvador, demand urgent attention and multifaceted solutions. Both nations face a complex criminal landscape characterized by territorial disputes, diverse funding streams, and the continuous emergence of new criminal groups – all of which challenge existing law enforcement efforts. Militarized responses, while initially effective in quelling violence, raise concerns about human rights abuses and democratic erosion. Furthermore, the fragility of the prison systems in both nations and the reliance on short-term interventions without addressing underlying structural issues risk prolonging the ongoing cycles of violence and instability. 


Moving forward, sustainable solutions must address the root causes of crime and violence, including poverty, inequality, and lack of opportunities. Additionally, there is a pressing need for greater transparency, accountability, and international cooperation to effectively combat organized crime while upholding democratic principles and protecting human rights. Through comprehensive and collaborative efforts, South American nations can navigate the intricate nexus between democracy, security, and criminality to build safer and more resilient societies for all.

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