There is no denying that crime and gang culture are pressing problems in parts of Latin America.
The ease of illicit drug production, the large profit margins in narco-trafficking, and the difficulty of law enforcement incentivize criminal cartels and keep crime rates high in many parts of the LATAM.
Some high crime nations such as Ecuador have decided to do something about this.
And, the first step in addressing any problem is admitting its existence. In April, 2022, Ecuador’s president, Guillermo Lasso “declared a state of emergency in three western provinces because of rising crime,” according to the BBC.
The three provinces in question were Guayas, Manabí, and Esmeraldas. A curfew was enforced for some 60 days in all three provinces, during which time around 10,000 backup police officers and army soldiers were deployed to keep a strong presence, especially in Guayas.
Despite being necessary, the emergency deployment of armed forces is but a symptomatic solution, which needs to be complemented by measures that target the root causes of violence in Ecuador.
Most crimes reported in the country are related to narco-trafficking in some way or another, particularly as Ecuador is located along the Andean cocaine route.
Over 90% of gun violence incidents in Ecuador, for instance, can be traced back to drug cartels. Casualties are often either the result of confrontations authorities and cartels or—even more frequently—rivalry among gangs.
As such, Ecuador is disrupting the supply chain of drugs in strategic places to subdue the cartels. The country’s western ports are among the choke points of the Andean cocaine route, and the anti-drug police began a series of crackdown there on suspicious cargos in 2021.
Over 210 tons of narcotics were confiscated last year, making 2021 the worst year for narco-traffickers so far. Over half of all drug seizures were carried out in ports, according to the Ecuadorian National Police.
In just one raid in February, 2022, various elite units of the Ecuadorian Police seized over 11 tons of cocaine in a joint operation, with the help of a canine unit. The drugs were expertly hidden in cargo containers at a port near Guayaquil.
Many have also commented that a reform in the criminal code may discourage gang membership. The reformed penal code of 2019, Código Orgánico Integral Penal (COIP), already contains strict punishments for those involved in narco-trafficking.
Nevertheless, some are asking for yet another reform toward a smarter penal system that prosecutes major traffickers more severely than street-level dealers.
Serious legal consequences usually act as a strong deterrent for potential gang members, but not always.
Some young, low-level members joining drug cartels claim that they knowingly put themselves in great danger due to the absence of better employment opportunities.
Trafficking can be highly profitable for international drug lords, given the huge difference in the price of narcotics across the Andean cocaine route and the target markets: the US and—to a lesser degree—Europe.
But gang recruits are dominantly young disadvantaged men who are in desperate need of money, but do not see many economic opportunities on the horizon.
The current administration is trying to change this by ramping up economic activities in the western part of the country, where gang culture has been particularly strong.
The government has adopted a business-friendly stance, announcing large-scale plans to overhaul the economy. The reforms will draw on privatization and the free market economy to improve the business climate.
“The government does not create jobs. The one who creates employment is the businessman, the entrepreneur, the citizen, it is the investors. That is the best way to fight poverty,” Lasso said in May, 2021, just before assuming the office.
Now in 2022, the successful performance of the police is reflected in an all-time high number of drug seizures, while the efficacy of more long-term measure such as economic and legal reforms remains to be seen.