36-year-old president is taking on powerful cartels – but he needs to stay alive

By Isaac M March 1, 2024

Ecuador is by no means the first Latin American country to try to take on the cartels and gangs that have embedded themselves into the societies of many countries across the region.

But Ecuador, arguably more than others, faces a real challenge because of the involvement on its soil of two of Mexico’s most notorious and powerful drugs cartels – Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation.

The authorities in Ecuador tell us that the Sinaloa cartel has broadly aligned itself with the Los Choneros gang, while Jalisco New Generation has aligned itself with Los Tiguerones.

The 36-year-old president of Ecuador, Daniel Noboa, ordered a crackdown on these two gangs after Adolfo ‘Fito’ Macias, the leader of Los Choneros, escaped from jail before his planned move to a high security prison.

Ecuador's President Daniel Noboa. Pic: AP
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Ecuador’s President Daniel Noboa. Pic: AP

The crackdown led to a gang fight back, with murders, car bombings and insurrection launched across the country in January.

The fight back was particularly focused on the port cities and towns of the Pacific Coast, like Guayaquil and Esmeraldas, which are major areas of influence for the gangs.

President Noboa recategorised gang crime and membership as terrorism, immediately allowing the security forces to exercise much more rigorous powers to detect, confront, and incarcerate gang members.

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A soldier on patrol in Esmeraldas, Ecuador

The country’s security forces have been conducting raid after raid, rounding up people they believe are linked to the gangs.

Prisons filling up

The country’s prisons have been filling up with new inmates, and some prisons, notorious for their lack of discipline and control have been taken over by the military, completely changing the dynamic inside and the freedom of the gang leaders to continue their business activities while locked up.

The president of El Salvador, another country infested with narco crime gangs, has overseen quite an overwhelming clampdown against criminal activity, and as it stands, roughly two percent of the country’s entire population is behind bars.

Prison in Ecuador
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Inmates in prison

The net effect has seen murder rates and general crime rates plummet, according to the government’s latest figures.

‘The world’s coolest dictator’ is how President Nayib Bukele described himself. And his popularity in El Salvador has rocketed.

Ecuador’s president appears to be following a very similar plan but is keen to distance himself from the dictatorship sobriquet.

The Phoenix Plan

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Soldiers in a pick up truck patrol Guayaquil

The ‘Phoenix Plan’ to beat the gangs in Ecuador has a budget of $800m (US) for law enforcement – $200m of that comes from the government of the United States.

The United States has a vested interest in seeing gang activities in Latin America curtailed.

First to restrict the flow of illegal drugs into the country and secondly, and arguably even more importantly, to stop the flow of migrants north from South and Central America and illegally into the United States.

The huge number of migrants trying to cross the border from Mexico often tell us they are attempting the journey to escape the gangs who make life in a swathe of countries absolutely miserable.

For two weeks Sky News joined raid after raid, night and day, on land and sea, against the gangs in Ecuador. We also entered a prison, which was full, and under military guard.

So far so good.

Mexican cartels moving in

But, and it is a big but, the Mexican cartels are in town and that is a major problem. I’ve spent a lot of time with gangs and cartels in Mexico and across south and central America, some, like in Brazil, are wealthy, well-organised, ruthless, and crucially, are well-armed.

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An Ecuadorian marine armed with a gun supporting the coastguard

When Brazil’s police and army go after the gangs, they conduct raids using helicopter gunships and armoured vehicles. And while the authorities have claimed major successes in recent years, my most recent visit showed me that gangs are still acting with impunity – it’s an ongoing thing.

In El Salvador, the gangs were substantial but not well organised, and in neighbouring Honduras it was very much the same picture.

However, in Mexico it’s a whole different ball game. The cartels are fundamentally part of the fabric of society, and the resources are, to all intents and purposes, limitless.

Their brutality is legendary, and their ability to buy off police, judges, whole companies, and even the government, cannot be underestimated.

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Soldiers preparing to take part in a raid

Successive Mexican governments have long since given up on the police in their efforts to quell cartel activity and depend entirely on the country’s marines to carry out law enforcement.

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The point is, Mexico’s government is not winning, and if I’m honest, I don’t think they ever will as things currently stand with drug use across the world.

Now to Ecuador’s problem again. The Sinaloa and New Generation cartels realised that Ecuador – which is not a cocaine producing country – had excellent ports with speedy routes north by sea to Central and North America.

The country has a huge banana production business which exports via sea, and it’s a major oil refining country, which exports by sea. These ships are perfect for hiding and exporting drugs, particularly cocaine, as well.

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Ecuador’s cartel crackdown

Neither of the cartels will appreciate President Noboa’s disruption to their business, and my suspicion is that they won’t just walk away.

They’re used to getting their own way, and so used to problems going away – or simply killing an opponent, that they may do the same in Ecuador.

To succeed the president and his government need to keep gang members under control and in prison, they need to stop the cartels sending their operatives into the country to reboot the business, they must ensure that state institutions aren’t corrupt and bought off, and finally, the president needs to stay alive.

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