Ecuador election: Narco politics rule ahead of polls

BARRIO (BBC) – The Whatsapp message arrived on a Sunday night.

“Good evening Franki, this is the Jalisco New Generation [Mexican drugs cartel],” the message read, in barely legible Spanish. “If you block me, you’ll get into problems. I need $6,000 [£4,710] – I’m watching you, your wife and kids.”

Franklin Torres, a banana producer, ignored it – then, a few days later, another message arrived, this time sent to Franklin’s wife: “Tell your husband to get his act together, we are writing from prison and there are people watching at the window.”

While he reported the threats, Franklin has little faith things will get better.

As president of Ecuador’s National Federation of banana growers, he is pressuring the government to allow them to carry weapons to protect themselves.

“In the country it’s hard, we don’t have 911, or police patrol,” he says. “It’s better for good people to have weapons, not just those who are bad.”

Ecuador is the world’s biggest banana exporter and the industry is a lucrative one – banana crates are a favourite mode of transporting cocaine among drugs cartels, from Ecuador’s ports and on to Europe and beyond.

Mexican and Colombian cartels have infiltrated local gangs in Ecuador as they vie for lucrative drugs routes. Once one of the most peaceful countries in South America, Ecuador was hit hard by Covid and cartels have taken advantage of a country broken by the pandemic – and by corrupt politics.

In the first six months of the year, there were 3,568 violent deaths in the country, according to the National Police. That was up more than 70% on last year.

And as the country heads to the polls in the first round of presidential elections on Sunday, crime is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, especially after last week’s assassination of one of the candidates, Fernando Villavicencio.

“[Villavicencio’s murder] was a terrifying tragedy,” says political consultant Oswaldo Moreno. “It marks an inflection point in which the politics of death is now very much part of the culture here.”

There’s no more powerful example of that than Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city and home to the country’s largest port. It’s become the epicentre of the country’s crime problems as cartels take advantage of its location and logistics to move drugs out of the country.

Presidential candidate Daniel Noboa chose Durán, one of the worst-hit areas of Guayaquil, for his final campaign event on Thursday. But he did so wearing a bullet-proof vest. Along the way, there was a nearby shoot-out which sent everyone into a panic – such is daily life in this crime-ridden city.

“We need to change the state of security in Ecuador,” he told the BBC ahead of the event, adding that his priority if he became president would be tackling unemployment. “The problem is that by not giving people opportunities, we’re feeding these organisations with young new members.”

But it’s a mammoth task for a poor country like Ecuador – and it’s a losing battle against the lucrative drug trade.

In Durán, a curfew has been introduced after a surge in crime. Police checkpoints are set up along routes popular with drug traffickers but police are poorly equipped compared with the drugs gangs.

In some parts of the city, it feels like a war zone. In one district, a police station has sandbags piled up in the windows, put in place after gangs attacked them. In another, nearly 20 patrol cars are sat rusting in the car park. Captain Victor Quespás Valencia explains they just don’t have the money to fix them.

“Gangs want to win territory. We’re dealing with very violent deaths – people being found hanging from bridges or cut into pieces,” he explains. “International criminal organisations are recruiting people here – but they have lots of money. There’s a total imbalance between organised crime and the police trying to stop it.”

So will these elections make a difference to Ecuador’s future? This vote is being held a year and a half earlier than planned after President Guillermo Lasso dissolved the National Assembly by decree to avoid an impeachment vote. The fear is that amid political chaos, violence could get in the way of democracy.

“Cartels are criminal organisations that don’t have an ideology,” says organised crime expert Pedro Granja. “They are criminal organisations moving illicit goods, they follow the same logic as a company. They are doing a market study at the moment – then we’ll see whether if they want to, they can paralyse the elections.”

Regardless of elections, they’re paralysing people’s lives. Angie Fuentes lives with her four children in Durán. The bars on all the windows in this neighbourhood tell you all you need to know about the lack of security.

The past few years have been tough for Angie – her father died from Covid and Guayaquil was hit hard. Bodies were piled up in the streets with authorities unable to deal with the huge numbers dying.

But while the Covid vaccine helped curb the spread of the virus, criminal gangs are now offering a new type of vacuna as they call it – hand over money that the criminals demand and in return for being extorted, you get immunity from the violence.

Not that it’s so straightforward. Last month a neighbour was shot dead outside his daughter’s school so Angie pulled her children from having to attend – but authorities refuse to offer virtual lessons from home despite the dangers.

“All I want is security,” says Angie. “That’s the only thing that will allow us to take our children to school without running the risk of being hit by a stray bullet.”

It’s a war that experts say has no end, especially when demand for cocaine in Europe and as far afield as Australia has soared.

“You can end civil war and war between countries,” says Pedro Granja. “But putting an end to drug-trafficking is totally impossible – people will carry on taking drugs.”

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