WORLD

Ecuador hunkers down for a government war on drug gangs after attack during live TV newscast

Jan 9, 2024, 9:04 PM | Updated: Jan 10, 2024, 3:40 pm

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Schools and stores sat shuttered, many people stayed home and soldiers roamed the streets of Ecuador’s biggest cities Wednesday, the day after armed men invaded a television station’s live afternoon newscast and the president told the security forces to wipe out the drug gangs terrorizing the country.

The group wielding explosives and guns flashed across the televisions of Ecuadorians for 15 minutes on Tuesday as the intruders threatened and assaulted employees of the TC Televisión network’s station in the city of Guayaquil. No one was killed and 13 suspects were arrested, but the violent broadcast stunned much of the region — and elicited a wide-ranging government response.

President Daniel Noboa issued a decree saying his country was in an “internal armed conflict” and designated 20 drug-trafficking gangs as terrorist groups that the military had authorization to “neutralize” within the bounds of international humanitarian law.

“We are in a state of war and we cannot give in,” Noboa said during an interview with Radio Canela on Wednesday.

He’d already declared a national state of emergency Monday after the leader of one of Ecuador’s most powerful drug gangs disappeared from prison. Since Adolfo Macías’ apparent escape, Ecuador has seen police officers kidnapped and at least 125 corrections personnel taken hostage inside prisons.

The government said nearly 330 people, including the TC Televisión suspects, had been arrested for alleged acts of terrorism as of Wednesday afternoon. Security forces across Ecuador guarded hospitals, public transit and newsrooms. The government ordered teachers and students to hold classes remotely until Friday.

In the radio interview, Noboa promised to crack down on drug trafficking groups and consolidate peace in the Andean nation of 18 million.

“We are fighting against terrorist groups made up of more than 20,000 people,” Noboa said. “They wanted to be named as organized crime groups … but they are terrorists.”

The president warned that judges, prosecutors and officials who collaborated with the gangs would be considered part of a terrorist network.

Even in a country where a presidential candidate was assassinated last year, the show of force streamed into Ecuadorians’ homes and workplaces was unprecedented. The motive for targeting the station remained unclear.

“We are on air, so you know that you cannot mess with the mafia,” one of the assailants said during the broadcast attack. The words sounded like a warning addressed to Ecuadorian authorities and the nation at large.

Noboa’s resolve was welcome to many Ecuadorians, who have watched their nation descend into chaos. While wedged between major cocaine producers Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has been comparatively peaceful. But traffickers tired of doing business in more militarized countries have set up shop there.

Humberto Poggi del Salto, 50, a businessman in Guayaquil, urged the government to come down on the armed groups with “a firmer hand, to have no mercy, no tolerance or (respect for) the human rights of criminals.”

“President Noboa must do what El Salvador did,” he said. “The situation has gotten out of control. And it is because of lack of extreme measures.”

El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, two years ago suspended constitutional rights to wage an all-out war on violent gangs. Sharp declines in criminal violence since then have made the 42-year-old leader highly popular at home and across Latin America.

Yet mass arrests of tens of thousands of suspected gang members – many of them innocent – and the opening of a controversial “mega-prison” have fueled accusations of widespread human rights abuses in El Salvador.

An advisor to Bukele, who asked for his name to be withheld because he was not authorized to speak on the subject, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Ecuador would not be seeing its current levels of violence if it had followed El Salvador’s example.

Experts tracking criminal groups in Latin America said that while an immediate strong response is needed to show the government is in control, simply militarizing the country may only make things worse in the long term.

“Extreme policies might seem like the logical consequence we’ve seen,” said Ivan Briscoe, Latin America and the Caribbean director for the International Crisis Group. But “if you move to a security policy which is purely based on repression and killing, you’re going to enter an extremely violent spiral.”

Countries like Colombia and Mexico have warred with armed cartels for decades, targeting drug lords as a strategy to take down entire criminal organizations. But warfare has caused such groups to splinter into factions and forced them to adapt, Briscoe said.

Over time, that has made it more difficult for authorities to dismantle criminal enterprises; when one armed group is taken down, five more pop up to take its place, he said.

What needs to happen in the long term, Briscoe said, is for authorities to root out corruption within the government that has allowed gangs to take control of prisons and many port cities, and to create a judicial system that breaks any links between organized crime and law enforcement.

“To be sent to prison in Ecuador is to be sent to the home of a criminal organization,” Briscoe said.

Juanita C. Francis Bone, a leader of the human rights group Mujeres de Asfalto in the coastal city Esmeraldas, worried that the path Noboa is taking could lead to a criminalization of poorer communities.

Esmeraldas has seen massacres of local fishermen, bodies hanging from bridges by nooses, and rounds of car bombs going off. A normal day there “is waking up and fearing that what you’re hearing aren’t fireworks, but gunshots.” Francis Bone said.

She said years of government neglect and poverty have fed the ranks of armed gangs with young people who see few options for themselves. More than additional guns on the streets, such Ecuadorians need access to education, health care and jobs, Francis Bone said.

“Deep inequality is always going to be the breeding group for recruiting people into criminal groups. It’s very hard for someone to speak of peace and security when they’re starving,” she said. “You can’t simply wash your hands of any blame by just saying you’re going to militarize.”

___

Janetsky reported from Mexico City. Allen Panchana in Guayaquil, Ecuador, contributed to this story.

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