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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Hamilton

Student cocaine usage and its link to Ecuador’s gang war

Dolores Ochoa/Associated Press

Once recognised as one of the most peaceful nations in Latin America, over the last few years and more drastically over the last few weeks, Ecuador has been completely overtaken by gang violence. With a homicide rate that rose 82% in 2022 from the previous year, life in the towns and cities of Ecuador is being transmuted into something far scarier than it once was. Although other Latin American nations have battled with historic instability, for Ecuador there has been a dramatic plunge that has seen it surpass its neighbours in violent drug activity in only a few short years.  


You might (rightly) think that Ecuador is very far away from your life as a student in the UK, but you and your peers are possibly contributing to the problem in a pretty direct way. Here’s what you need to know.


Ecuador’s political landscape (briefly)


Isaac Castillo / Ecuador's Presidency press office via AFP - Getty Images

At thirty-six, Daniel Noboa is Ecuador’s youngest president. After coming into power in November last year, the heir to a huge banana empire has pledged to reduce violence in the Latin American country. Noboa has vowed to crack down on gang violence, something he only really took a hard stance on after he was elected, which came as a surprise to some. During the election campaign one of Noboa’s fellow candidates was shot dead, a shocking event for a nation that isn’t used to political assassinations.


Over the last 6 or so years, Ecuador has seen an increase in violence and homicide, largely due to its increasing role in the South American cocaine trade. This change, as well as responses from the government and other officials, is altering the country’s political landscape dramatically.


Pushback from gangs


At the start of this year, the country was plunged into violence, concentrated in the port city of Guayaquil. Two main events signalled this change, the prison escape of gang leader ‘Fito’ and the storming of a live news broadcast by gang members.


On January 7th, ‘Fito’, Ecuador’s most notorious gang leader, escaped from jail as he was due to be transferred to a maximum security prison. The move was part of President Noboa’s crackdown, as Ecuador has largely lost control of its prison system. It has been described that ‘Fito’, whilst incarcerated, was living ‘like a king’.


Just the next day, a live news broadcast was stormed by 13 armed gang members. People watched from their homes as presenters were held hostage, yet the situation was eventually diffused and resulted in no casualties. These two events were catalysts in the so called ‘war’ that has begun between the state and Ecuador’s most powerful gangs. But Ecuador has not been traditionally known for its gang violence, which prompts the question of how things came to be this bad.


Cocaine trade


Ecuador doesn’t have the same historical drug reputation as Colombia or Mexico but in the last few years has become a critical player in the South American cocaine trade. This change can be traced back in part to the 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC Guerrilla group that controlled part of northern Ecuador prior to the deal. This meant that there was a power vacuum in the region, which in conjunction with pandemic-related job losses, has opened up the region to increased gang activity.


The impact of this is a declining quality of life for Ecuadorians. Civilians of these cities and other gang-controlled communities are living in fear, scared to leave their homes because of the violence. Something that demonstrates this change is the fact that more Ecuadorians are leaving than ever and choosing to migrate across the Darien Gap, a dangerous stretch of jungle that separates North and South America geographically.


Authoritarian response

ANADOLU via Getty Images

Noboa’s crackdown has been compared by some to what is happening in El Salvador, which has seen President Nayib Bukele use increasingly autocratic methods to address their own issue with gang violence. It’s a familiar cycle of government crackdown and violent response. While Ecuador’s government push humiliation tactics and harsher policing, there is a danger that civil unrest may be fuelled. Yet, for now, it seems as though the general response from the majority of Ecuadorians is an acceptance of the necessity of harsher measures. However, the rest of the world should keep an eye out for the long-term possibility of individuals using this violence to justify democratic backsliding and human rights violations.


Accountability in Europe


There is no clear answer to such a complex situation, but the influence of European cocaine consumption is undeniable. A large part of gang violence in Latin America is driven by cocaine usage in Europe, and students are part of this. It’s no secret that UK unis are hotspots for drug use and it has been widely acknowledged that universities need to reassess their individual responses. Yet there is an element of self-accountability. It is important that we think about how our lifestyle choices affect those indirectly around the world. Obviously, passing up that cheeky line at afters isn't going to stop the violence in Ecuador completely, but at the very least you should be educated about the real cost of it. It is difficult to predict how the situation in Ecuador will develop over the coming months and years, but we cannot say that we are completely removed from it. Basically, if you needed an extra reason to get off the gear in 2024, add Ecuadorian gang violence to the list.


If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction, here are some helpful resources:








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