John Henry Murdy*
PhD Student in Political Science at the University of Chicago, who has been studying the carceral system in Ecuador
In the evening of August 9th in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Quito, three shots rang out, killing Ecuadorian presidential Candidate Fernando Villavicencio. Supposed criminal groups soon took to social media to engage in an absurd game of political blame-shifting, some claiming and others refuting responsibility in chilling videos mimicking official press conferences. President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency for the entire country and sent 3,600 policemen and soldiers to move alias “Fito,” the leader of the country’s previously hegemonic criminal group Los Choneros, to a maximum security prison. But Lasso’s actions did not stop the attacks. Estefany Puente, a candidate for the National Assembly from the indigenous Pachakutik coalition, was shot in Los Ríos with less-than-lethal rounds in an attempt to intimidate her. Soon after on the 14th of August, correísta candidate Pedro Briones was shot in Esmeraldas — the province with highest homicide rate in the country where powerful criminal groups continue to battle to control trafficking routes.
Rising violence extends nearly everywhere in the country. After a decade of relative peace, homicides in 2021 spiked upwards to an average of 26.79 per 100,000. The key transshipment province of Esmeraldas holds incomprehensibly high death rates at 78.96 per 100,000 people, according to the most recently available INEC data — rivaling Mexico’s most violent state Colima, which suffers from 110 homicides per 100,000 after decades of failed repression policies. How did Ecuador reach this level of violence in such a short period? A series of counterproductive state policies inadvertently created powerful prison-based gangs, setting the stage for the current problems. Then, the death of the most powerful gang leader in 2020 and subsequent power vacuum exploded the precarious situation, leading to killings which have since touched the highest levels of Ecuadorian politics.
A key contributor to the Ecuadorian state’s inability to control violence has been the rise of gang power in prisons. From 2000 to 2010, the Ecuadorian prison population remained between 8,000 to 12,000. Afterwards, then-President Correa pushed through a series of tough-on-crime prison sentencing guidelines which nearly tripled incarceration numbers and led to massive overcrowding. In 2017, the new president Lenin Moreno worsened the situation by pushing through a series of austerity measures which cut the prison budgets by 70% and eliminated the Justice Ministry which oversaw the prison system. One incredible interview with a guard in the country’s most violent prison explains the effect of these budget cuts, recounting that each security officer is expected to monitor 800 inmates at one time.
Under such impossible conditions, guards cut deals to give inmates control in exchange for maintaining some semblance of order. These deals have a long history in Ecuador. In the early 2000’s, unofficial elected committees of inmates controlled the prisons, maintaining authority over the prison population in exchange for significant autonomy. However, Correa’s modernization initiatives and massive new prisons opened in 2014 changed this dynamic. The previous deals which allowed micro-entrepreneurship, cell customization, and committee rule within the prisons all ended. Instead, some argue that police intelligence agents ceded power to narcotrafficking elites in the form of little deals for smuggled goods or increased autonomy over cell wings. In exchange, police receive information on rival gangs which allow them to make popular and well-publicized busts.
How exactly these intelligence deals led to the absolute gang domination of the prison systems seen today in Ecuador remains unclear, but the result is evident. Recent raids have revealed pig and tilapia farms inside prison walls. The president’s twitter account broadcast the logo and slogan of one of the largest criminal groups painted on the wall of their wing. Leaked army footage shows a mural idolizing the leader of the Choneros gang on the wall of the prison they effectively controlled for years.
Research outside of Ecuador shows that criminal groups with control over prisons wield enormous leverage over those beyond the walls. People outside at risk of state repression and arrest know they must listen to the orders of those who control prisons in case they get sent there themselves. With these prisons making an incredibly lucrative base of operations, gangs in Ecuador extend their reach into the streets. From behind bars, leaders coordinate with members outside to control local territory. This control regularly includes establishing safe stash houses for drugs awaiting shipment north, micro trafficking to local residents, and demanding “vacunas” from shop owners and households.
Violence skyrocketed in 2021 because the leader of the most powerful trafficking organization died, leading to a deadly power vacuum as his organization turned on itself. The Choneros, under the leadership of alias Rasquiña, established its dominance over the past decade both within prisons and outside. However, after Rasquiña was killed at the end of 2020, his organization fractured into up to twenty different organizations. Research from Mexico and Colombia shows these divisions lead to higher levels of violence. In the Ecuadorian case, the incessant shifts in alliances and subsequent prison massacres plunged the country into the violence seen today.
The exact reason for Villavicencio’s death has not yet been made public. However, just prior to his assassination, he received threats from the still-powerful Choneros warning him to stop discussing narco-political pacts. As gangs battle each other for control of drug routes and markets, research from Mexico suggests they will increasingly seek political protection to insulate them from state repression. Effectively, they threaten and bribe politicians to force those politicians to control security forces. Villavicencio’s death unfortunately fits this logic. He threatened valuable criminal-political pacts, and so they killed him. Hopefully the new president of Ecuador will not rely on repressive, abusive, or corrupt short-term “solutions.” Instead, they must confront and dismantle the systems of power — the illicit-political pacts — which perpetuate the violence seen today.