Ecuador violence affects the whole world, president tells BBC
Ecuador’s President Daniel Noboa, the country’s youngest-ever leader who assumed office in November, emphasized to the BBC that the recent surge in gang violence in Ecuador is a global concern.
Facing the most significant crisis in the nation’s recent history, Noboa took office just as unrest unfolded, involving the escape of two gang leaders, hostage situations with prison guards, and explosive incidents in various cities.
After declaring a state of emergency, armed individuals stormed the TC television studios in Guayaquil, brandishing guns and threatening staff live on air.
In an exclusive interview with the BBC during his visit to the conflicted city, President Noboa acknowledged the formidable challenge of restoring peace to the country, stating that he didn’t anticipate an easy tenure.
Rejecting the actions of terrorist groups, he asserted that significant changes were underway.
In response to the violence, he categorized Ecuador as being in an “internal armed conflict” with powerful drug cartels controlling the cocaine trade. He directed the military to “neutralize” 22 armed groups redefined as terrorist organizations.
With Washington offering assistance, a delegation comprising US law enforcement, military, and diplomatic personnel is set to arrive in Ecuador soon.
While critics view this as US interventionism, President Noboa welcomes the support, seeing it as an encouraging sign that the international community is addressing the issue.
He stressed the global impact of the narco-terrorist operations, reaching Europe and the US, and emphasized the need to address the problem at its roots within Ecuador. Despite these developments, pressing issues persist in the aftermath of the chaotic and violent events.
First and foremost, about 180 prison officers are still in the hands of criminal gangs inside several prisons. Their families are growing increasingly desperate and have held protests in the capital, Quito.
Given Mr Noboa has said hostage-taking is the “ugly side of war” and refuses to negotiate with the gangs, I asked him what his government was doing to secure their release.
“I can’t give exact details of what we’re going to do,” he says, “but we’re in constant communication with the armed forces and the police. We’ll do everything in our power to bring those people home.”
The other immediate question is over the whereabouts of a notorious drug gang leader, Adolfo Macias Villamar, alias Fito. The escape from prison of the feared head of the Choneros gang earlier this week appeared to spark much of the subsequent violence.
President Noboa conceded his forces didn’t yet know where he was.
“Right now, we’re looking for him. We have a few leads which we’re chasing down with the armed forces and with international cooperation.”
His government says they intend to search for the fugitive leader – and for Fabricio Colon Pico, the head of an opposing gang who’s also on the run – until they’re successful.
If there is one thing that this week has laid bare, though, it’s that Ecuador’s problems run deep. The drug gangs, which are believed to operate in tandem with powerful Mexican cartels, are smuggling tonnes of cocaine out of Ecuador’s ports, like Guayaquil, to the US and Europe.
Detection of the drugs inside the shipping containers is insufficient and President Noboa says he’s keen to do more to strengthen checks in the country’s ports.
With their sizeable profits though, the gangs have been able to corrupt the judicial and political system as well as the prison system.
The president says he wants to implement root and branch reform in the coming years. His critics say he’s trying to take on an almost insurmountable task, with relatively little experience in front-line politics.
“I do believe that we can win,” he counteracts, “and I won’t stop fighting until we do.”
Members of the presidential team show us a slick new Ecuadorean tourism campaign designed to encourage foreigners to visit the natural wonders of the Andes.
However, the world has seen an uglier side of the country in this most difficult of weeks, as it falls deeper into armed conflict and further from stability. A nation arguably moving towards becoming a failed “narco-state”.
President Noboa refutes that characterization, saying he’s determined that it won’t reach that point.
“We’re fighting every day so that it doesn’t become a narco-state.”
To achieve that, even his staunchest supporters would agree he has his work cut out.