Joe Biden’s Botched Ecuador Policy

Joe Biden’s Botched Ecuador Policy

The collapse of a weapons deal with the Latin American country shows how a lack of U.S. engagement has given Moscow the power to set the terms of U.S. cooperation with its neighbors and otherwise willing partners.


Ecuador is in the midst of a dire security crisis as violent drug gangs wreak havoc on the once-peaceful Andean country, prompting a spike in migrant outflows to the United States as well as the consolidation of a new illicit narcotics hub in South America. The United States has responded to Ecuador’s rapid decline in stability by ramping up coordination and engagement with the government of President Daniel Noboa. However, a decision by the Biden administration to explicitly link support for Ecuador to the war in Ukraine has put Ecuador in an even more vulnerable position.

What happens in Ecuador does not stay in Ecuador. Drug trafficking organizations from across the globe have worked to solidify their hold in Ecuador and create a new narcotics trafficking center in South America, ramping up the flow of deadly illegal drugs into the United States. At the same time, the wave of violence in Ecuador is exacerbating the region’s migratory crisis, with a 368 percent increase in Ecuadorians arriving at the U.S. border from 2022 to 2023. Additionally, over the past several years, China and Russia have turned Ecuador into a critical political and economic foothold, making the country’s current crisis a unique opportunity for the United States to regain dwindling influence in its hemisphere.


All of this led the United States to rightly offer support to Ecuador in recent months as it engages in a perilous fight against violent drug traffickers. A planned weapons swap was a key pillar of the renewed effort by the United States to support Ecuador by empowering its underequipped security forces. Under the deal, the United States would have sent Ecuador $200 million in modern weaponry in exchange for Ecuador’s aging Soviet-era equipment, including Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters, BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers, and Strela-2 and Igla man-portable air defense systems.

The Biden administration planned to send these weapons to Ukraine and support the fight against Russia’s invasion. It is unclear how useful Soviet-era equipment dubbed as “junk” by Noboa would be to Ukraine. Ecuador was reportedly aware that the United States would send its weapons to Ukraine, but Noboa says he was caught off guard when this was made public by the Biden administration.

The Biden administration’s diplomatic missteps and tunnel vision have now put Ecuador in an even more precarious position as its government struggles to regain control from violent drug gangs. Predictably, Russia, a top trading partner for Ecuador, has retaliated against the small South American country by imposing a painful ban on a series of key agricultural imports from the small South American nation. Ecuador’s fragile economy cannot afford to sustain such a blow, particularly as Noboa works to fund a needed increase in security spending for the country. Unsurprisingly, Ecuador has called off the weapons swap with the United States, leaving it to contend with Russia’s punishing trade restrictions and a lack of new U.S. equipment.

In short, the Biden administration’s handling of this situation has been an unmitigated disaster. The effort has displayed a lack of seriousness from the Biden administration that plays into negative stereotypes about inconstant U.S. engagement in Latin America. The entire episode, from the country’s security crisis to the collapse of the weapons deal, exhibits the troubling consequences of U.S. inattention to its hemisphere. As conflicts much further away absorb Washington’s attention, the Biden administration has stood by as counternarcotics capabilities are actively dismantled by governments from Mexico to Colombia, flooding our hemisphere and countries like Ecuador with criminality.

Ecuador’s decision to call off the weapons deal also shows how a lack of U.S. engagement has given Moscow the power to set the terms of U.S. cooperation with its neighbors and otherwise willing partners. Ecuador remains economically beholden to Russia in part because the United States has refused to move on a trade agreement with the country in recent years. And Russia’s influence in the region dwindles in comparison to China’s. Washington’s number one adversary has taken full advantage of the U.S. absence from Latin America. If U.S.-China tensions do boil over on the other side of the Pacific, Beijing will leverage its regional influence in much the same way Moscow has done in Ecuador, but on a much larger and more dangerous level.  

It is not too late to enact a course correction. Washington should handle crises in the Western Hemisphere with the seriousness and attention they deserve. In the case of Ecuador, the United States must ensure that its support for Ukraine does not come at the cost of confronting threats to security and stability in its own hemisphere. To this end, congressional oversight and pressure should be brought to bear. Going forward, a new U.S. administration must work to ensure that neither Moscow nor Beijing are in a position to veto U.S. engagement with our neighbors.

Andres Martinez-Fernandez is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for National Security. Follow him on X @AndresMartFern.