By Sir Ronald Sanders
Ecuador, once celebrated for its tranquillity, now finds itself at the epicentre of a distressing surge in gang violence, its streets marred by the ominous shadow of armed groups fuelled by the trafficking of illicit drugs.
On January 7, President Daniel Noboa deployed the nation’s armed forces to clean up prisons from which gang leaders were directing their criminal activities. This desperate response came after days of unrest, during which two formidable gang leaders escaped from jail, prison guards were held hostage, and explosive devices wreaked havoc in cities across the country.
These events starkly illustrate a broader crisis, one that extends its menacing grip across Latin America and the Caribbean.
Ecuador, nestled between the world’s two largest cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru, faces the dire consequences of its geographic vulnerability. The United Nations Global Report on Cocaine 2023 reveals a record surge in cocaine production, with Ecuador serving as a tragic victim of its easily accessible coastal routes.
However, Ecuador’s plight is not a solitary narrative; it is a haunting prelude to a region-wide symphony of chaos.
The issue of gangs, guns, and violence cannot be confined within borders. Governments are now awakening to the problem, but it has already spiralled out of control in some nations, while others are teetering on the brink.
The Caribbean, in particular, stands as a sobering example, with four of the five most murderous countries and territories in the region in 2022 being the Turks and Caicos Islands, Jamaica, Venezuela, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Disturbingly, there were no reliable figures for Haiti, leaving a void in understanding the full extent of the crisis which, in any event, is known to be completely unmanageable.
Statistics for the region reveal a grim reality; eight out of ten countries with the highest homicide rates in the world are located in Latin America and the Caribbean. The average homicide rates, according to 2021 data, stood at 9.3 per 100,000 for South America, 16.9 per 100,000 for Central America, and 12.7 per 100,000 for the Caribbean.
The Caribbean also grapples with a dual challenge: an influx of illicit firearms, primarily sourced from the United States, and a decrease in funding for crucial security initiatives.
The United States, despite being a major source of the region’s illicit firearm woes, paradoxically reduced its budget for the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative by 11.8% in fiscal year 2022. This initiative provides vital aid for border and port security, a lifeline desperately needed to combat the influx of weapons.
The alarming prevalence of American-made guns in the hands of Caribbean gangs has spurred heads of government to call for stronger U.S. efforts in curbing arms trafficking. In June 2023, Bahamas’ Prime Minister, Philip Davis, emphasised to U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris, the urgency of reducing the flow of illegal guns entering his nation from the United States. However, the U.S. account of the meeting made no mention of this serious concern, not because the Biden government is not troubled by gun crimes, but because it is a domestic political issue in the U.S. Hence, not enough is being done to stop the flow of illegal weapons into the Caribbean.
Even as these nations grapple with the inflow of illegal firearms, their capacity to intercept and prevent such activities remains a significant challenge. Ports of entry often lack the necessary interdiction capacity, and limited enforcement resources hinder their ability to curb the tide of arms. The traffickers exploit the short distances between Caribbean islands, utilizing go-fast boats and yachts to move weapons seamlessly across the extensive coastlines.
Efforts to control and combat this phenomenon have been ongoing since the late 1990s. Despite these efforts, gangs continue to proliferate, fuelled by drug traffickers who arm their criminal enterprises.
Recognizing the urgency and gravity of the situation, during my term as President of the Organization of American States (OAS), I placed the topic of “Guns, gangs, and violence” on the agenda of the Permanent Council.
An expert panel, convened to address the growing crisis, proposed approaches to tackle the root causes and consequences of criminal gang violence, particularly gun-related violence. The resulting Resolution, adopted on December 12, emphasized the necessity for greater collaboration between governmental agencies. It acknowledged that no single state possesses the capacity to match the formidable resources available to organized criminals operating across borders.
The resolution underscored the links between transnational organized crime, criminal gangs, and the vital importance of a cross-border, collaborative approach.
We strongly proposed that the matter be addressed at the upcoming OAS general assembly in June, with the objective of establishing practical systems of collaboration between Latin American nations and Caribbean states. The criminals are organized; if governments and their law enforcement agencies fail to follow suit, the consequences will be more disastrous than they already are. But this alone, while a start, is not enough. Much more needs to be done. At the regional level, collaboration is paramount, as no single state can confront the vast resources of transnational organized crime independently.
At the national level, robust legislation, effective implementation machinery to punish drug traffickers, and prison reforms to prevent them from becoming recruitment centres are imperative. Equally important is raising awareness among communities about the dangers, consequences, and sanctions associated with membership in criminal gangs and the possession and illegal use of firearms.
As the Caribbean confronts this multifaceted crisis, the imperative is clear: collective, resolute action is not just an option but an absolute necessity. The path forward demands a commitment to national, regional and hemispheric action.
Gangs, guns and lawlessness now threaten every person – the examples are too many to ignore.
(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also the current President of the OAS Permanent Council. The views expressed are entirely his own. For comments and previous commentaries, see: www.sirronaldsanders.com)