October 17, 2023No Comments

Ecuador’s Dangerous Crossroads: Gangs, Trafficking Pathways and Future Perspectives

Authors: Shams Jouve and Isabelle Despicht - Crime, Terrorism and Extremism Team

Ecuador making headlines: brutal assassinations and increased gang violence

As of today, Ecuador is ranked as the least safe country in Latin America, finding itself in the midst of a  bloody turf war, with soaring violence linked to organised crime, civil unrest as well as drug trafficking. Just a glance at the crime rate of 2021 paints a sobering picture of Ecuador's current state of affairs, revealing an alarming 79.79% increasecompared to the previous year. Fast forward to 2023, homicide rates, too, are set to increase up to 40 per 100,000 individuals.

This surge in violence was accompanied by the assassination of at least six political figures, including presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, whose death made headlines in August 2023. The murder of Villavicencio, who previously worked as an investigative journalist and uncovered corruption cases in the country, serves as a potent symbol of the growing influence of gangs and their willingness to assert dominance and territorial control in Ecuador.

How have Ecuador's geographical location and institutional weaknesses contributed to criminal influence?  

Ecuador's geographical features have long played a role in shaping trafficking routes in the region. Ecuadorian ports represent key transit points for drugs, which are then shipped to Europe and the United States. Laura Lizarazo, senior analyst for the Andean region at political risk consultancy Control Risks, explains: "The market is flooded with cocaine and criminal organisations are adapting to explore this over-production". Equally, Ecuador represents an ideal transhipment point for both human trafficking and illegal arms trade

For decades, Ecuador was shielded from cocaine-related violence that plagued many other countries in Latin America. This was the result of various factors, among others, an agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), one of the most active armed groups in the Andes region. The FARC, a Marxist guerrilla group founded in 1961, underwent extensive shifts to finally become involved with the drug trade in Latin America in the 1990s. By 2016, it controlled a staggering 60% of the world's most productive coca crops.

Despite the aforementioned, the Ecuadorian government remained engaged with the FARC in the 2000s and 2010s. Meanwhile, the 21st century observed a phenomenal expansion of illegal trafficking and Ecuadorian gangs' influence in the area. Initially mainly governed by Mexican and Colombian cartels and mafia groups, working with local criminal entities as intermediaries, the country slowly became a key transhipment point for illegal trafficking.

New players, such as Chinese mafias in the case of human smuggling, emerged. Local criminal groups gained considerable power and organisational capabilities, including control over a considerable part of the prison system, and gang violence led to several prison massacres and an unprecedented homicide rate.

Another significant obstacle is the emergence of protection rackets, which arose out of prison gangs empowered by police intelligence. These illicit webs thrive at developing patronage networks by establishing connections with the government and accessing its resources. They frequently enlist public officials and coerce them, reaping benefits from state dismantlement. Amongst others, they have been recognised for their role in disseminating prison intelligence to purposely misinform the public

Amid the aforementioned, several government policies over the last decades have participated in declining criminal activity through social inclusion, police reform, and innovative approaches to criminal justice, including the legalisation of several local gangs. However, public institutions remain weakened by endemic corruption, facilitating criminal activities and compromising state integrity.

The state's inability to monopolise the use of legitimate violence, along with its lack of transparency, has highly damaged public trust in authorities. This further compounds the already challenging economic situation, which fuelled a series of protests over a cost of living crisis in summer 2022. 

While all these challenges exist, Ecuador currently aims to build a robust and adequate legal framework to tackle organised crime through local, interstate and transnational cooperation. Nevertheless, implementing such legislation appears to be a significant challenge due to insufficient resources and the lack of independence of Ecuador's judiciary

Source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/the-national-flag-of-ecuador-15652224/

A wake-up call for Ecuador’s democracy

Juan Papier, Human Rights Watch's acting deputy director for the Americas, considers Villavicencio's death to be  "a wakeup call for Ecuador's democracy". Indeed, strong security policies are needed to reinforce public authorities and tackle transnational organised crime.

As part of the Global Programme on Implementing the Organized Crime Convention, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) currently works with Ecuador representatives to establish a National Strategy against organised crime. This partnership aims to reinforce international cooperation and local coordination between representatives of various Ecuadorian institutions. Moreover, the Republic collaborated with the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) "Ecuador SinCero Programme" to tackle Corruption Prevention, Transparency and Citizen Participation between January 2020 and June 2023. This cooperation programme articulated various initiatives, mainly focusing on Public Integrity and the Open Government Model.

Conclusive remarks 

While it seems certain that crime and violence rates are still set to rise, recent political events, including Fernando Villavicencio’s assassination, could well represent a pivotal moment for Ecuador. However, to stand ground on these incredibly difficult challenges, measures tackling rampant corruption and promoting judicial independence, transparency and the accountability of perpetrators are needed. 

To that end, it is in Ecuador’s interest to seek international guidance in building an effective National Strategy against Transnational Organised Crime and strengthen its collaboration with neighbouring countries. Yet, international cooperation can only complement guidance and concrete domestic efforts. Governmental initiatives must improve public sector management and emphasise civic education and engagement. 

In addition, more effective measures should be implemented concerning the protection of local whistleblowers, which still fall short of adequate reporting mechanisms, as demonstrated by the case of Julio Rogelio Viteri Ungaretti v Ecuador, brought before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), in which a member of the Ecuadorian military suffered reprisals for noting irregularities, including acts of corruption within the Armed Forces. 

Nevertheless, reducing corruption, strengthening the domestic legal system, improving public sector management, and promoting education and citizen participation will certainly not prove enough to the immense task of strengthening Ecuador’s institutions. Change needs to come from within. Ecuador has an inherent interest in innovating and coming up with solutions that truly allow for this change to be sustainable. Perhaps it could in the future explore the avenues brought by emerging technologies, which may be used, for instance, to reduce human interaction and control corruption within administrative processes.

February 17, 2022No Comments

Economic Security in Western Balkans: Challenges and Perspectives

By: Eleonora Shehu and Rosa Maria Torraco

Image Source: https://www.eesc.europa.eu/en/news-media/eesc-info/052021/articles/88044

In general, when we think of security we consider the fields of conflict resolution and prevention, crisis and catastrophe management, espionage, and military. However, this concept can be interpreted in a variety of ways, including economic security. Although there is not a unique definition of Economic Security, it can be described as individuals, households, and communities' ability to meet their basic needs in a sustainable and dignified manner. The notion is crucial when it comes to Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia), as it is one of the greatest issues the region is currently facing. Organized crime, unemployment, poverty and democratic deficits have been threatening the stability of the area for many years.

In this article, we are going to highlight which are the main challenges in the Western Balkans’ Economic Security, in order to understand the security perspectives of the region.

One of the major threats the Western Balkans are currently facing concerns the labor market, at the point that also in times of economic growth of the region, the recovery is often jobless. In fact, all countries of the area have high unemployment rates, especially when it comes to women employment. Nonetheless, the most challenging issue in Western Balkans’ labor market is the youth unemployment rate, which is one of the highest in the world. There are several reasons for the soaring unemployment rates in the area, among which the inadequacy of the supply of skilled labor, as many people, especially the youths, lack an appropriate education, and political instability..Consequently,decision-makers are prevented from implementing medium-terms strategies and foreign investments are not encouraged.

Another obstacle that threatens the Western Balkans’ economic security is the democratic deficit that characterizes the area. As stressed by the outcomes of the 140th session of the European Committee of the Regions, democracy in Western Balkans is currently facing several challenges, including a limitation of press freedom, a refusal to recognize genocide and war crimes, unsettled territorial disputes, leaders' and ruling parties' authoritarian tendencies and a fragile democratic culture. In particular, one of the greatest dangers of local democracy is the “local state capture”. In other words, Western Balkans are affected by influential individuals or groups that use corruption to manipulate a country's policies, rules, and economy for their personal gain.

Unfortunately, corruption plays an unfortunate role in the governments of the majority of Western Balkans’ states affecting the everyday life of peoples. Albania and North Macedonia, however, have earned the title of frontrunners in the fight against corruption, registering the fastest progress in this field and thus giving hope for a future in the EU. In fact, countries wishing to join the EU need to have firstly stable institutions that guarantee democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the respect for and protection of minorities; secondly, a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces in the EU; lastly, the ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

Albania has yielded great results in the fight against corruption through a vast vetting process of the members of the judiciary and administrative bodies. This process thus shows to be pivotal to the restoring of public trust in law enforcement bodies of the State. North Macedonia has continued to consolidate its track record on investigating, prosecuting, and trying several corruption cases, including high-level cases. Moreover, the country has been strengthening its institutional frameworks in the fight against corruption, particularly the SCPC and the Prosecutor for Organized Crime and Corruption (OCCPO). Other countries, on the other hand, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro have not delivered as expected, and corruption even at the highest echelons of power still remains a large-scale problem.

In conclusion,''Considering all the information above, what can be done to further reinforce the Western Balkans' economic Security?'' The countries in the Western Balkans region welcome investments needed to improve their infrastructure projects and this eagerness makes them vulnerable to regulatory capture via Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), loans and grant money. Shoud the EU not provide what the Western Balkans have long asked for, they will likely turn to non-EU actors for investment funds, such as Russia, Turkey, China and even the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These influences by non-EU actors have been more so influential during the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent need for medical supplies and vaccines.

Dr. Valbona Zeneli trusts in regional cooperation between Western Balkans and the European Union as a beneficial tool for the stability of the region.This is because it would cease the perplexities of foreign investors but the prolonged accession process and the critical convergence with richer EU countries have contributed to a plunge of public support for the EU. It is important to remember the geostrategic position and role of the Western Balkans for the EU: in fact, as integral part of the natural European continent, any destabilization in the Western Balkans can quickly become a problem for Europe. With this key factor in mind the EU has two choices, according to Dr. Valbona Zeneli: treat the Western Balkans as the key strategic asset the region represents, or let Moscow, Beijing or the Gulf Countries influence domestic and regional relations.