A new year and a new chapter has begun in Ecuador, one that those living there perhaps rather wish hadn’t. The escape of a notorious drug lord on Sunday from one of the country’s prisons, and the storming of a live TV broadcast by armed men, reads like a cliched plotline for a narco drama. ‘Don’t shoot. Please, don’t shoot’, a woman can be heard pleading, while she and her colleagues are held hostage.
The dramatic incident is part of an eruption of violence that has besieged the South American country in the last few days. When President Daniel Noboa – who’s not even hit two months in the job – declared a two-month ‘state of emergency’ on Monday following the weekend’s prison break, nightly curfews were introduced, and the police and military were mobilised to take control of prisons. Noboa’s intention was to eliminate violence, not encourage it. Yet police kidnappings, torched cars, prison riots – and the terrifying scenario at the TV station – ensued. While the hostages at the TV station were eventually rescued, saving Ecuador from the grip of its narco nightmare won’t be so easy.
With the Amazon rainforest covering half of its territory, and as a gateway to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador has until recently enjoyed its reputation as a tourist and nature hotspot. Although Ecuador is on the cocaine highway through South America, neatly tucked between the world’s two top cocaine-producing nations of Peru and Colombia, it had been one of South America’s least dangerous countries until the past few years. Drug trafficking, of course, did take place: that’s nothing new. Yet the scale of violence in recent years is with gangs vying for control over territory and drug smuggling routes. In 2023 there were around 8,000 violent deaths, according to police data, up fourfold from 2021 – the year that set the country on a trajectory following a series of prison massacres after the murder of a powerful gang leader in prison.