A short while ago, images from Ecuador of an armed gang breaking into the studio of a television broadcast went around the world; only a week later, the prosecutor investigating the case was assassinated. But the enormous security crisis that the Latin American country is facing has been ongoing for years: Ecuador has quickly changed, going from being one of the safest countries on the continent to one of the most dangerous in the world in just a short time.
Since drug cartels began to move into the country, from Colombia and Peru, the situation has spiraled downward. Today, Ecuador is the main corridor for cocaine heading for Europe, the prisons are in the hands of narcos who use them as offices to direct their operations, and the country has been plunged into chaos.
Ecuador is currently led by Daniel Noboa, the newly elected president, the 35-year-old scion of the country’s richest banana plantation family, who has declared a state of emergency, acknowledging that Ecuador is experiencing a real internal war against drug trafficking gangs. But before him, for ten years the country had been led by Rafael Correa, undoubtedly the most beloved—and hated—political figure in recent Ecuadorian history.
An economist and academic, he is now 60 years old; he was president of Ecuador from 2007 to 2017, implementing a series of public policies with a strong social focus that enabled the rapid economic growth and development of the country. Afterwards, his support waned: criticism came from the left as well, accusing him of a neoliberal drift. Since 2017, Correa has been living in Belgium as a political refugee, after he was put on trial in Ecuador on allegations of being involved in a corruption scandal and sentenced to eight years. But Correism is still very much alive.
Elena Basso: Would you have ever imagined that your country would experience such a deep crisis as the one we are seeing today?
Rafael Correa: Never. I could never have imagined it. I have spent my life studying the various models of development, and I have never seen a country that has been destroyed as quickly as Ecuador, in peacetime. When my government ended, it was the second safest country in Latin America after Chile, with 5.8 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. At the end of 2023, it had 43 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, a striking figure: Ecuador is now one of the five most dangerous countries in the world.
EB: What are the causes?
RC: From 2017 onwards, all the reforms and institutions that we had set up in the realm of public safety were dismantled. The Ministry of Security Coordination, which worked with Colombia and Peru in anti-drug operations, was eliminated. The police have returned to being an independent institution with no civilian oversight, and today they are corrupt and have been infiltrated to the core by drug traffickers.
Not to mention the numerous neoliberal reforms that were passed which dismantled the rule of law, plunging a large part of the citizens into poverty. And this is a serious problem, because organized crime also feeds on the socio-economic problems of the country: if there is poverty, it’s easier to attract new members, especially among the youngest. Criminal groups began to act as a parallel state and organized Christmas parties in the neighborhoods, helped the poorest families by giving away school books and supplies to their children, repainted schools in the most degraded areas. And that is how, little by little, they enter the lives of citizens. But in recent years, those who have governed Ecuador have devoted themselves with much more vigor to prosecuting me and my party than to fighting the gangs.
EB: What is the level of corruption due to drug traffickers in the Ecuadorian political apparatus and military forces today?
RC: Extremely high. It’s enough to say that prisons are totally controlled by drug traffickers, who are using prisons as their office, from which they direct all their operations. Nowadays, no one can enter an Ecuadorian prison without the permission of the gangs. They have also infiltrated the justice system, where there are so many judges who are completely corrupt and who are acting on the instructions of these criminal gangs. On the other hand, there are many courageous judges and prosecutors who are being murdered and whose families are living under threats to their lives—but what can they do if the state doesn’t protect them? Today, corruption has reached the highest echelons of military power: it’s enough to recall the “narcosgenerales,” generals of the Ecuadorian armed forces who are involved in drug trafficking.
EB: In your opinion, in such a situation, what measures should be taken to combat drug trafficking and restore Ecuador to stability?
RC: To regain control of the country, it would be necessary first of all to reform the Ministry of Justice, with an entire team that can coordinate and act simultaneously on several fronts, eliminating corruption and regaining control of the prisons first of all. What would also be needed is an Interior Ministry that would once again take control of the police and which would be concerned above all with the safety of citizens. We would need a real Ministry of Defense, which today seems to be non-existent, restoring the intelligence apparatus of the State that has been totally abandoned over the years. The state should focus its efforts on really doing justice: everyone knows who the high-level drug bosses are, but they never end up in prison.
EB: What do you think the political future of Latin America will be? Will far-right politicians prevail, such as Milei or Bolsonaro, or the great progressive movements?
RC: I believe that very significant progress has been made in Latin America. Despite the alarming growth of far-right movements, the political landscape has improved a lot since the 1990s, when the right ruled virtually across the continent. Before Milei was elected in Argentina, all the major economies in the region were led by progressive movements. This is an unprecedented and very important milestone in Latin America. Unfortunately, on a global level, we are living in a moment in which the political discussion has become totally polarized, and this allows the birth of these far-right movements that promote policies which would be truly disastrous, especially in developing countries.
EB: What is “Correism” today?
RC: It is Ecuadorian progressivism, and I am convinced that we have made so many enemies over the years because our project has been very successful, and no one is happy that the progressive movements in Latin America are so successful. But despite everything that has happened, despite the fact that I am unable to return to my country, we continue to be the main political force in Ecuador and we lost the last elections by only 3 points. I can’t say how much longer Correism will last and what will happen, but I can assure you that it’s still very strong.
EB: There is a lot of talk about the anti-narcos model of El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, in which the state uses great violence to defeat the gangs without being too concerned with respecting human rights. What do you think about it?
RC: It’s the typical model that the right employs to solve these kinds of problems. If there are many deaths from shootings, what is the response of these governments? Liberalize gun restrictions and ensure that all citizens can walk the streets armed. But this kind of reform doesn’t solve the situation, it just creates more problems. I don’t agree with Bukele’s model—our government in Ecuador had achieved better results in terms of security, and we did so without repression, without violating human rights; instead, we did it by focusing on the human development in our society. When dealing with these crises, people lose their good sense and look for easy solutions, forgetting what we were before. In such a context, there is a need to know how money and drugs are coming in, how they’re being exported, how weapons and technology are coming into the country. And in order to combat international trafficking, we need a state that would act internationally. To deal with organized crime, you don’t need Rambo, you need Sherlock Holmes.