Ecuador violence affects whole world, president tells BBC

Members of the Army's Elite Forces frisk men and check their identities during a patrol in the streets of Moran, a neighbourhood in northern Quito, on 11 January 2024
Image caption,Soldiers patrolled the streets and searched homes for weapons and suspects after the violence erupted

Ecuadorean President Daniel Noboa has told the BBC the gang violence which dramatically exploded this week in his country is a problem for the whole world.

Ecuador’s youngest ever president has only been in the job since November, but he is now faced with the country’s biggest crisis in its modern history.

Days of unrest saw two gang leaders escape from jail, prison guards held hostage, and explosive devices set off in a number of cities across the country.

Then, a day after Mr Noboa declared a state of emergency, armed men burst into the studios of TC television in Guayaquil, threatening staff with guns live on air.

Speaking exclusively to the BBC during his first visit to Guayaquil since the violence, the president acknowledged that the task ahead in restoring peace to the country was daunting.

“I didn’t sign up for this thinking it was going to be easy,” he says on the waterfront of the conflicted port city.

“We can’t continue with this game that these terrorist groups are trying to establish.”

Now, he insists, changes are under way. Since the violence unfolded, he has declared the Andean nation to be in an “internal armed conflict” with the powerful drug gangs which control the cocaine smuggling trade.

He has ordered his military to “neutralise” 22 armed groups which he redefined as terrorist organisations.

And Washington is offering its help. A delegation of US law enforcement, military and diplomatic personnel is due to arrive in Ecuador in the coming weeks. His critics see US interventionism at play but President Noboa applauds the move.

“It’s encouraging to see the international community actually paying attention to what’s going on here,” he smiles. “It affects the whole world: the narco-terrorists that operate here have operations in Europe, in the US.”

“We need to solve the problem from the roots, and the root of the problem is here,” he adds.

Daniel Noboa sits in chair gesturing with his hands
Image caption,Daniel Noboa has ruled out negotiating with the criminal gangs who have taken about 180 prison officers hostage

There remain some pressing issues following the chaotic and violent scenes.

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.

Police officers stand behind a group of detainees in Guayaquil, Ecuador on 10 January 2024.
Image caption,Eighteen people were detained over the storming of a TV station in the port city of Guayaquil

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 of 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 characterisation, 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.

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