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Ecuador’s State of Emergency
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Ecuador’s State of Emergency

The South American nation wages war against the violent gangs wreaking havoc across the country.

Happy Tuesday! The Entertainer is back! To all the Billy Joel fans out there Keeping the Faith, the Piano Man announced the upcoming release of his first pop single in The Longest Time— almost 17 years—titled, “Turn the Lights Back On.” The song will be available in Italian Restaurants everywhere on February 1.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The U.S. and Britain launched another round of strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen on Monday, the eighth such campaign in two weeks, in response to the Iranian-backed terrorist group’s continued attacks against international ships in the Red Sea. “The Houthis’ now more than thirty attacks on international and commercial vessels since mid-November constitute an international challenge,” the U.S. and U.K. said in a joint statement released on Monday. “Recognizing the broad consensus of the international community, we again acted as part of a coalition of like-minded countries committed to upholding the rules-based order, protecting freedom of navigation and international commerce, and holding the Houthis accountable for their illegal and unjustifiable attacks on mariners and commercial shipping.” The eight targets included an underground storage site as well as weapons and surveillance capabilities, the Pentagon reported. 
  • The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) announced this morning that a total of 24 of its soldiers were killed in Gaza on Monday, marking the single deadliest day for Israeli troops since the ground operation began in October and bringing the IDF’s total death toll to more than 200. Israeli officials reported that 21 reservists were killed in a high-casualty incident in central Gaza yesterday afternoon, when Hamas fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades at an Israeli tank and two nearby buildings collapsed following a large explosion. In addition, three officers were killed as Israeli forces advanced into Khan Younis—a city in the southern half of the enclave and the site of intensifying urban battles.
  • In a 5-4 decision on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the Biden administration’s request to vacate an injunction in the ongoing fight over Texas’ use of razor wire fencing at the southern border, allowing federal agents to remove the barriers. The state of Texas sued the federal government last October after border patrol agents attempted to remove some of the fencing, arguing the Department of Homeland Security was interfering with the state’s ability to enforce its own borders. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elana Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson in the majority ruling, vacating a previous injunction set by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina endorsed former President Donald Trump in the Republican presidential race on Monday, just one day before the New Hampshire primary election. “I don’t see eye to eye perfectly with any candidate. And until now I’ve stayed out of it,” Mace said in a statement yesterday. “But the time has come to unite behind our nominee.” Trump endorsed Mace’s primary challenger in 2022, calling the congresswoman “an absolutely terrible candidate” after her calls for accountability following January 6. Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina governor, campaigned for Mace in 2022 and helped defeat her Trump-backed challenger. House Freedom Caucus Chairman Bob Good, a Virginia Republican who was backing Gov. Ron DeSantis, also formally endorsed Trump on Sunday. 

Ecuador Erupts

Police keep watch over arrested men who attempted to take over a hospital in Guayas, Ecuador, on January 21, 2024. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP) (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)
Police keep watch over arrested men who attempted to take over a hospital in Guayas, Ecuador, on January 21, 2024. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP) (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

On January 9, a live news broadcast from the port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador, was suddenly interrupted when more than a dozen masked men stormed the TV studio, brandishing guns and explosives. The attackers swung their weapons wildly as they made presenters and crew lie on the floor. Reporter Jose Luis Calderon pleaded with the attackers as the cameras continued to roll, beaming the frightening scene across thousands of television screens in the South American country. 

Authorities ultimately arrested the 13 men, set to be charged with terrorism. Last week, though, the prosecutor investigating the attack was shot and killed in Guayaquil. “Everything has collapsed,” Alina Manrique, the station’s head of news, said afterwards. “All I know is that it’s time to leave this country and go very far away.”

The shocking incident is just one episode in the recent escalation of violence in Ecuador. Once a tourist-friendly pocket of peace in the world’s deadliest region, the country has slowly devolved into one of the most dangerous places in South America. The deteriorating security situation has prompted the promise of a harsh crackdown from newly elected President Daniel Noboa, who declared war on the drug cartels that exercise enormous control over the country’s prison system and battle each other for access to drug trafficking routes. Noboa’s plan—backed by the U.S.—is dramatic, but analysts and observers have warned it may not be enough to ensure peace in the long term.

The last several weeks of turmoil are a departure from Ecuador’s one-time status as an oasis in a violent region. In 2018, the country’s murder rate was six per 100,000 people, just a tick higher than the U.S. rate of five per 100,000 that same year. That relatively low rate made it an anomaly in the region: Ecuador’s northern neighbor, Colombia, saw a yearly rate of 26 murders per 100,000 in 2018, and in Brazil there were about 28 murders per 100,000 that year. Ecuador has steadily become more dangerous over the last six years, with the homicide rate more than doubling by 2021 and hitting 40 per 100,000 in 2023.

The deteriorating security situation has largely been driven by the expansion of organized drug crime in the country. Ecuador’s neighbors, Peru and Colombia, are major cocaine producers, and drug trafficking has become big business in Ecuador as successive governments have struggled to contain powerful drug gangs—including Los Lobos and Los Choneros, the latter of which is said to have links to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. “What we have seen is a combination of ineffective long-term policies to address corruption, a prison system that has been run by criminal gangs, inequality in access to education and employment, [and] drug abuse,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, who focuses on Latin America as the director of the rule of law program at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank. “So this is a context that gradually allowed for more organized crime to be present in the country.” 

Ecuador has long been a U.S. ally in the region, but in 2009, leftist President Rafael Correa closed a U.S. airbase in the coastal town of Manta, where U.S. forces had been coordinating significant counter-narcotics operations. “Even though Ecuador didn’t experience a dramatic rise in violence immediately after [Correa] closed that base, Ecuador’s waters almost immediately became a hotbed of maritime drug trafficking because there was no longer anybody patrolling the space,” Ryan Berg, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told TMD

As violence has increased, so has emigration. In 2022, Ecuadorians were the second-largest nationality crossing the Darién Gap—a treacherous stretch of jungle along the border between Colombia and Panama that serves as an unavoidable barrier to migration to the southern U.S. border. While U.S. encounters with Ecuadorian migrants have increased inconsistently over the past six years—ballooning one year only to collapse the next—there’s been an upward trend since 2018. There were more than 115,000 encounters with Ecuadorian migrants at the southern border in 2023, compared to fewer than 2,000 in 2018

The last several months of the year were particularly turbulent. In early August, Fernando Villavicencio, an anti-corruption presidential candidate, was assassinated at a campaign stop in the country’s capital of Quito, prompting the U.S. to send an FBI team to aid with the investigation—a fairly common practice among allies. Authorities arrested six men involved in organized crime and suspected of orchestrating the hit—all of whom were killed in prison in October. “They can’t even get to trial with the men that they suspect because they’re killed in prison,” Berg said. “So clearly, there’s a criminal conspiracy there to cover up the evidence, and so […] there’s no way you can have an impact on levels of impunity and crime while still having that level of corruption.”

Noboa—the youngest president in Ecuador’s history and the son of a banana baron—took office in November promising to get a handle on the security situation during a truncated term that will conclude next year. He pitched building two new maximum-security prisons in an effort to break the cartels’ control over the nation’s penal system, as well as raising taxes to support increased security across the country. In the background of Noboa’s plans, Attorney General Diana Salazar launched an operation she’s called “Metastasis” to try to root out corruption that she says goes all the way to the top of the country’s most important ministries. In December, the investigation resulted in more than 70 raids and dozens of arrests. She predicted a violent backlash from the gangs, and she was right. 

For the last two weeks, Ecuador has been locked in a violent and dramatic doom spiral, which kicked off in earnest when drug kingpin José Adolfo Macías Villamar, also known as Fito, escaped from prison on January 7. Fito—who had been serving a 34-year sentence for drug trafficking and murder, among other charges—absconded on the same day he was scheduled to be transferred to a different maximum-security prison, suggesting he may have been tipped off by a prison or government official. 

Fito’s disappearance started a chain reaction in the country’s detention centers, with riots breaking out across six prisons as members of the gangs operating within the prison walls took nearly 200 guards and other employees hostage, potentially in retaliation for the plans to transfer the kingpins to tighter-security detention centers. The next day—January 9—another drug lord escaped from another prison as violence escalated. In addition to attacking the news station, a group of presumed gang members stormed a university in Guayaquil and seized hospitals, while reports of explosions and kidnappings emerged around the country. 

In response to the chaos, Noboa declared a 60-day state of emergency, instituting a national curfew and sending the military onto the streets and into detention centers. “The time is over when drug-trafficking convicts, hit men, and organized crime dictate to the government what to do,” he said. He deployed more than 22,000 military personnel across the country as part of the order. 

Noboa’s predecessor, Guillermo Lasso, frequently declared states of emergency to combat local outbursts of violence—with varying results. “There was a crisis in Guayaquil and they would declare a state of emergency locally and clamp down. All of a sudden there was violence in Esmeraldas, a different coastal province—state of emergency, they’d clamp down,” Berg told TMD. “And it felt like a whack-a-mole strategy without any long-term focus on securing the entire country’s territory.” 

But Noboa went a step further: He declared war on the country’s organized drug trade. The president said Ecuador was in a state of “internal armed conflict” with 22 criminal gangs he designated as terrorist organizations, ordering the military to “neutralize” the groups in a crackdown that has so far freed the hostages taken in the country’s prisons since early January and regained control over the detention centers. Over the weekend, authorities arrested almost 70 gang members responsible for storming a hospital earlier this month. Both Fito and Fabricio Colón Pico, the leader of Los Lobos, are still on the loose, however, and the gangs have vowed to wage war in return.

Noboa, a center-right leader educated in the U.S., has received bipartisan support from American officials. A State Department spokesman last week promised continued cooperation with Ecuador, including visits from top diplomats and the commander of U.S. Southern Command, Laura Richardson. A bipartisan group of senators expressed their solidarity with Ecuador, saying “the U.S. stands unequivocally with our ally Ecuador in efforts to ensure perpetrators are held accountable.” The U.S. and Ecuador also negotiated a $200 million security assistance package late last year. 

The young president is serving out the end of Lasso’s term, the result of a legitimate, if bizarre, constitutional move that allowed Lasso to dissolve the government to avoid impeachment for allegations of embezzlement. With another election rapidly approaching, Noboa may be motivated to continue his crackdown not only out of a sense of public duty but also by electoral aspirations. The analysts TMD spoke with agreed that a tough-on-crime strategy that’s successful in the short term will help his reelection chances in 2025, even if it doesn’t solve the underlying problems with corruption and impunity that have allowed the gangs to gain control. “He has the responsibility to restore some order so Ecuadorians can resume their lives,” Taraciuk Broner told TMD. “But it’s a perverse incentive, because it’s an incentive to adopt short-term strategies.” 

Berg also highlighted the need for a more permanent solution. “Long term, they have to do much more than just put the army in the streets,” Berg said. “That’s the short-term solution, to try to make the streets feel safer. But the long term [fix] isn’t just having a permanent state of exception—which is no longer a state of exception; it’s a state of normality.”

Worth Your Time 

  • Writing for the Atlantic, Yair Rosenberg analyzes the allegations of genocide against Israel—particularly claims that out-of-context statements made by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant signal intent to “eliminate” Palestinians. “On October 10, as the charred remains of murdered Israelis were still being identified in their homes, Gallant spoke to a group of soldiers who had repelled the Hamas assault,” Rosenberg wrote. “‘Gaza will not return to what it was before. There will be no Hamas. We will eliminate it all.’ This isn’t a matter of interpretation or translation. Gallant’s vow to ‘eliminate it all’ was directed explicitly at Hamas, not Gaza. One doesn’t even need to speak Hebrew, as I do, to confirm this: The word Hamas is clearly audible in the video.’” Yet multiple media outlets, the South African legal team at the International Court of Justice, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan have widely cited and circulated this incorrect quote—and other poor translations—as fact. “These omissions and misinterpretations are not merely cosmetic: They misled readers, judges, and politicians,” Rosenberg continued. “The good news is that they can be avoided in the future by making sure to check translations at their source; pressing writers to link to primary sources when possible; and placing scriptural citations from any faith into their proper theological and historical context. Certainly, no outlet or activist should be cavalierly accusing people or countries of committing genocide based on thirdhand mistranslations or truncated quotations.” 

Presented Without Comment 

Mediaite: Trump Says He’d ‘Win’ a Mental Aptitude Test Against Nikki Haley

“Well, I think I’m a lot sharper than her. I would do this. I would sit down right now and take an aptitude test and it would be my result against her result and she’s not gonna win. She’s not [going to] even come close to winning.”

Also Presented Without Comment

NBC News: Fake Joe Biden Robocall Tells New Hampshire Democrats Not to Vote on Tuesday

Toeing the Company Line 

  • It’s Tuesday, which means Dispatch Live returns tonight at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT! A bigger than usual team—including those on-the-ground in the Granite State—will break down all aspects of tonight’s New Hampshire primary as the results come in. And as always, they’ll take plenty of viewer questions! Keep an eye out for an email later today with information on how to tune in.
  • In the newsletters: Kevin reflected on (🔒) on just how insane the conversation about presidential immunity from criminal acts is getting, the Dispatch Politics crew looked at Nikki Haley’s final pitch to New Hampshire and reported from the annual March for Life in D.C., and Nick bid farewell (🔒) to Gov. Ron DeSantis as only he can. 
  • On the podcasts: Sarah and David brave the tundras to record the latest Advisory Opinions from Vanderbilt University’s campus, where they discuss left-leaning bias in pro-bono cases before diving into the details of Fulton County DA Fani Willis’ possibly salacious hires.
  • On the site today: Dani Pletka argues that it’s time to defund the United Nations, Chris Stirewalt pregames New Hampshire, and Emma Rogers explains South Africa’s allegations against Israel at the International Court of Justice.

Let Us Know

Does reading about the growing violence in Ecuador affect how you think the U.S. should approach the migrant crisis along its own southern border?

James Scimecca works on editorial partnerships for The Dispatch, and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he served as the director of communications at the Empire Center for Public Policy. When James is not promoting the work of his Dispatch colleagues, he can usually be found running along the Potomac River, cooking up a new recipe, or rooting for a beleaguered New York sports team.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.