Ecuador has descended into a state of pervading violence and fear and the electorate wants retribution. Maria Gabriela Palacio explains neoliberal economics’ part in this cycle.

On 14th August 2023, Ecuador found itself thrust into global news headlines for tragic reasons. In the heart of its capital, Quito, presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, was shot dead in broad daylight days before the election’s first round. Just a few weeks earlier, on 23rd July, Manta’s mayor, Agustín Intriago, fell victim to an armed attack. Then, a week following Villavicencio’s tragic death, rural political leader Pedro Briones suffered a similar fate. Thousands of people have been killed in gang violence over the past three years, casting a pervasive shadow over politics and tarnishing ordinary citizens’ daily lives. So, how did violence escalate so rapidly in a country once heralded for its peace?

I was confronted with this harsh reality first hand during my recent visit to Ecuador this summer. Fieldwork activities were halted due to justified safety concerns voiced by my research team. The spectre of insecurity changes priorities. Conversations inevitably drift towards discussing safe travel routes home, and many, wearied by the constant barrage of distressing news, switch off their TVs.  

The widespread response to this pervasive, numbing fear is to detach – an emotional shield against the persistent anxiety of living in constant “fight or flight” mode.

The widespread response to this pervasive, numbing fear is to detach – an emotional shield against the persistent anxiety of living in constant “fight or flight” mode. And, worryingly, this sense of disconnection can translate into political action, as citizens cast their votes for candidates who, while advocating for limited state intervention, demand an increasingly draconian response to crime.

Reports suggest that the incidence of violence in Ecuador has risen by a staggering 300% since the inauguration of President Lasso in 2021, marking the most significant increase in the region. The root causes of this upsurge are multifaceted and demand a nuanced inquiry that moves away from simplistic citizen-security narratives. In the intricate web of illicit trade and gang-related crime, a situated analysis of the current violence in Ecuador necessitates a perspective free from sensationalist narratives and morbid portrayals of its manifestations. 

Although crucial, frequently cited drivers of this escalating violence, such as corruption, narco politics, poverty, weak institutions, state neglect, and youth unemployment, often overshadow the disproportionate burden borne by marginalised communities. Indigenous populations, Afro-Ecuadorians, Montuvians, and the younger demographic, notably children and teenagers, are at the sharp end of these socio-political structures. The pandemic’s onslaught has only deepened these societal cleavages, as evidenced by the surging poverty rates that peaked at 46.5% in 2021 and eased marginally to 45.8% in 2022. A careful enquiry into Ecuador’s recent violence is needed to avoid perpetuating biases that could lead to the vilification of these communities, who are often victims of systemic oppression rather than perpetrators.  

Indeed violence exacerbates poverty in several ways: firms and enterprises are forced to pay extortion fees colloquially known as “vacunas”. Schools in the coastal and border regions have become so insecure that parents withdraw their children. The intertwined challenges of insecurity and precarity push people to emigrate. Reports suggest that since 2021, about 280,000 Ecuadorians have departed, opting for riskier and lengthier land routes, such as the Darien Gap, which, despite their dangers, remain the preferred option to many due to their affordability.

Global gangland
Gang violence in Ecuador has global and regional dimensions. While fragmented, Ecuadorian gangs now partner with larger regional and global crime networks. Notably, the Sinaloa Cartel from Mexico and some dissident segments of the FARC have made inroads into Ecuador, collaborating with local gangs. 

These partnerships operate similarly to capitalist corporations, using violence to edge out competitors. Their expansion and reach are facilitated by their connections to legitimate sectors of the global economy, especially in banking and finance. Moreover, their influence extends to both legal and illicit global market operations.

Meanwhile the Covid pandemic and subsequent closure of educational institutions led to a significant increase in school dropouts in Ecuador. Between 2018 and 2023, the Ministry of Education reported a decrease in the number of students in schools, from 4.56m to 4.39m. Many children and adolescents are being driven out of schools due to poverty, insecurity, teen pregnancy and reduced social assistance. After the pandemic, there was a change in trend where boys were more likely to drop out of the education system than girls. They are leaving school to provide financial support to their families. Moreover, educational inequality in low-income parishes, rural areas, and regions with a high concentration of indigenous, black, and migrant populations has only worsened the problem. This is particularly alarming, as there is growing evidence that many of these boys in historically marginalised areas may be joining criminal gangs.

Research by Periodistas sin Cadenas revealed that during the past five years, around 28,000 children and adolescents in the Pacific Coastal Province of Esmeraldas have abandoned school due to violence and neglect. This has resulted in a significant change in the educational landscape of the province, where 33.9% of the national Afro-Ecuadorian population is concentrated. 

It is concerning to note that the dropout rate among students aged between 12 and 14 years has increased by 34.9%.

According to the Ministry of Education data cited in this report, for the academic year 2021-2022, 6,760 students in Esmeraldas have chosen to discontinue their education. It is concerning to note that the dropout rate among students aged between 12 and 14 years has increased by 34.9% between the academic years 2017-2018 and 2021-2022. The province has the highest dropout rate in the country at 3.95% compared to the national average of 2.11%. Esmeraldas is also the province with the highest violence rate in the country. InSight Crime reports that one of the cocaine corridors runs through the Esmeraldas. The increase in cocaine production has coincided with a rise in homicides in the country, from 6 per 100,000 in 2016 to 25 per 100,000 in 2022. 

These societal problems are symptoms of violent capital accumulation rather than mere causes of the current violence. Neoliberalism has created a landscape that perpetuates social hierarchies and exclusions while bolstering an economic model that places great emphasis on finance and transnational corporate power. The Sinaloa Cartel is a stark reminder of the dangerous alliance between the legal, financial, and corporate sectors. Yet, the recent cycle of violence has led to a growing appeal of a coercive state that further oppresses already victimised populations. Punitive social policies perpetuate a system that punishes poverty while safeguarding capital and extractive industries.  

And while the results of the August 20th election in Ecuador suggest a potential move away from extractivism —  that trend may also fuel violence. 

A majority expressed the desire to stop oil exploitation in the Yasuní National Park and mining in the Chocó Andino. This growing public sentiment against extractive industries was informed by the persistent efforts of civil society organisations that have raised concerns about the associated social and environmental impacts. This socio-environmental resistance has been met with violence, leading to unrest in the affected communities.

The pervasiveness of punitive policies evinces that neoliberalism remains fundamentally a class-based project and that today, it has become an ever-oppressive ethno-racial project, governing through securitisation and subjugating those groups deemed expendable by a securitised agenda that portrays victims as deviants. Consequently, social control is exerted for profit, with crime prevention as the rationale.

It is challenging to bring nuance to public debates on the current situation in Ecuador. The nation is grappling with palpable fear.

Yet, it is challenging to bring nuance to public debates on the current situation in Ecuador. The nation is grappling with palpable fear. As a result, many support candidates who present themselves as anti-establishment while advocating for repressive and punitive measures. Considering the coercive elements in policymaking, it has become increasingly difficult to criticise the recent wave of authoritarian developmentalism without implicitly promoting an anti-state stance. Paradoxically, the polarised society we see today is a result of suppressing dissenting voices that have highlighted the authoritarian tendencies of the state and the colonial legacies embedded in our views on development, regardless of the ideology of our governments.

This shift towards authoritarianism may indicate fluctuations in democratic preferences in the region. According to Latinobarometro, 50% of the population of Ecuador does not prefer democracy. with 37% indifferent to democracy, while 19% would prefer authoritarianism. In contrast, only 37% of the population explicitly prefers democracy. 

The “non-democrats who are unsatisfied with democracy” play a crucial role in shaping political changes and often lean towards autocratic regimes. The weakened social fabric caused by neoliberalism has resulted in a preference for coercion over protection when faced with violence. Increasingly popular mano dura responses and punitive social policies, rather than addressing the socio-racial aspects of poverty and stratification, adhere to conservative and patriarchal views, dividing the “deserving poor” from those seen as a risk and subjecting the latter to coercion. The alarming rise in violence within Ecuador’s prison system, which has resulted in over 500 prisoner deaths between February 2021 and July 2023, speaks of the growing collective disaffection towards the latter group. 

Neoliberalism seems to be moving blatantly towards authoritarianism as the model struggles to maintain economic legitimacy in the wake of increased precarity and a slow recovery from the pandemic. Considering what has happened in Ecuador, the crucial question is whether the current increase in violence poses a risk to economic development in the region or is an essential element in its expansion.

Maria Gabriela Palacio

Maria Gabriela is  a University Lecturer in Development Studies at Leiden University’s Faculty of Humanities, specialising in the intersection of political economy and development studies. Her research focuses on how …

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