Ecuadoreans go to the polls tomorrow to choose between a banana baron and a leftist disciple of the former president Rafael Correa, whose followers are known as Correistas, in an election where violent crime and cocaine smuggling are the main issues on the minds of voters.
Rather like the Roman census described in the Bible, everyone has to return to their home town to vote, so bus stations are thronged with passengers making journeys of up to several hours to vote, which is mandatory for all citizens under the age of 65.
Until relatively recently Ecuador was seen as a haven of peace in tubulent South America, but in recent years the news headlines have been dominated by stories about powerful armed gangs trying to exterminate each other, both inside prisons and in the streets, and of political assassinations.
Polls ahead of Sunday’s vote put the banana industry heir Daniel Noboa, 35, slightly ahead of Luisa González, who has promised free medicine and increased worker protections. This election is the run-off between the two most popular candidates after others were eliminated, including one who was assassinated before the vote.
Both presidential candidates have promised to militarise ports and airports to fight drug trafficking as headline-grabbing violence becomes ever more , particularly in coastal regions around the port cities of Guayaquil, Manta and Esmeraldas, where gangs vie for territory and trafficking routes with the backing of Mexican cartels.
Analysts are skeptical of the promises made by both candidates.
“Because of the emergency nature of the election, the winner will be in office for only 17 months so it is doubtful they will be able to accomplish very much even if they have the cooperation of the legislature — which is another problem in itself,” says Quito history professor Lolo Echeverria. He adds that much of the term will be consumed preparing for the next election.
Like most other observers, Echeverria says the candidates have been far too vague about their proposals. “Gonzalez wants to return to the policies and programs of the Correa government but ignores the fact that they were enacted during a period of record-high oil prices and today, that windfall is long gone.”
“On the other hand, Noboa often seems clueless when it comes to his promise to restructure the bureaucracy.”
He adds: “Neither candidate answers the question of how they will fund their proposals since the country cannot pay its current bills.”
The campaign has been marked by bloodshed, including the brazen assassination of the anti-corruption candidate Fernando Villavicencio, who was shot in August as he left a campaign event. Last week, six Colombian suspects in the assassination were themselves murdered in prison.
A seventh suspect was killed in another jail the following day.has gone from being an island of peace compared to its cocaine-producing neighbours, Colombia and Peru, to becoming one of the most violent nations in the region.
At more than 5,900, the number of murders so far this year has already surpassed records from previous years. More than a third of those killings were committed in the Guayas region around Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. A large percentage of the killings took place in prison massacres.
Just on Wednesday, there were five street killings in Durán, a riverside district lying east of Guayaquil just across the Guayas River. Warring gangs have turned this neighbourhood, crippled by protection rackets, into a battlefield of tit-for-tat murders.
The country’s most powerful criminal group, Los Choneros, splintered in 2020 with the killing of its leader Jorge Luis Zambrano, alias Rasquiña, spawning a web of rivals – the Lagartos, Tiguerones and Chone Killers to name a few.
Run from inside and outside prison, the gangs have complex alliances with Mexican factions such as the Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generación cartels, as well as Colombian guerrilla groups and Balkan traffickers.
The battle for control used to play out in the immense El Litoral prison complex on the outskirts of Guayaquil, the site of a string of grisly riots and massacres. But now the fighting has spilled onto the streets.
“Organised crime is a parallel state in Ecuador; they have taken the judiciary, the legislature, they are even in the political parties, they are everywhere,” said Arianna Tanca, a political scientist and researcher in Ecuador.
“They have much more power than the president, much more resources, much more money and they have the weapon of fear,” she said.
Built on islands in the delta of the Guayas River, Guayaquil is a shifting landscape of shiny high-rise buildings, luxurious gated communities and riverside slums wracked by crime and neglect.
The waterways provide rich drug smuggling possibilities and the city’s ports – mainly designed for the export of bananas – had “poor controls”, admitted Ramírez. He added scanners were being installed, which he said would be able to inspect 100% of exports by the middle of next year.
The police have stopped more drugs so far this year than any before, seizing 172 tonnes of mostly cocaine, 55 tonnes of which was seized at ports, he added.
There have also been several large seizures in European ports of cocaine shipments that had passed through Ecuador.
Sources: The Guardian, El Universo, Cuenca High Life.