Centrist Daniel Noboa’s highly consequential victory over leftist Luisa Gonzalez in Ecuador’s recent snap presidential elections puts his country on a path away from the corruption and anti-American hostility that has dominated the country’s politics in the twenty-first century.
Both Ecuador and the United States now face an important opportunity to confront the South American country’s rising and deeply worrying security crisis, which has brought a wave of narco-related violence, including the assassination of a leading presidential candidate, and a sharp increase in migration and illicit drugs flowing to the United States. The election of a tough-on-crime president offers Washington an opportunity to regain influence in a key South American nation that has for too long been a geopolitical playground for Beijing.
President-elect Noboa can build on outgoing conservative President Guillermo Lasso’s success in stabilizing Ecuador’s economy. In his short two years in office, he rapidly reactivated the economy post-pandemic, restored fiscal balance, and fulfilled Ecuador’s reform program with the International Monetary Fund. However, Lasso’s efforts to address soaring narco-violence were undercut by anti-capitalist domestic opponents who cut his term short with a baseless impeachment effort.
Meanwhile, transnational criminal organizations steadily consolidated their grip over the South American nation, bringing a wave of drug trafficking and violence. The homicide rate soared by over 350 percent between 2018 to 2022. 2023 is set to mark another year of massively increasing violence, with Guayaquil, the nation’s largest city, registering nearly as many homicides in the first half of 2023 as in all of 2022.
Ecuador sits geographically between the world’s top two cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru, a reality that has long left the country to contend with powerful drug cartels. With regional cocaine production spiking in recent years, Ecuador became an increasingly busy transit hub for illegal drug shipments to the United States and Europe. Increased drug flows attracted transnational criminal organizations from Colombia, Mexico, and from as far away as Albania, greatly accelerating the proliferation of homegrown drug trafficking gangs, resulting in inter-gang conflict that has driven the current wave of violence.
This year’s elections saw the violence upend Ecuador’s political stability with waves of car bombings and the assassination of conservative presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio last August. Villavicencio’s death marks the first assassination of a presidential candidate in Ecuador’s history. In neighboring Colombia, the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán in 1989 marked a rallying moment for Colombian society against the drug cartels.
A similar movement may be underway in Ecuador. The spike in violence has led some to call for a Plan Ecuador, alluding to Washington’s Plan Colombia of the 1980s and 1990s that neutralized Colombian drug cartels and a communist insurgency. A crucial precondition for Colombia’s success lay in broad consensus from the country’s political, business, and civil society leadership to confront the drug cartels head-on. That those conditions are present in Ecuador remains unclear, but it is possible.
Whether or not Ecuador embarks on a better path depends on President-elect Noboa. A young former lawmaker and son of Ecuador’s richest man and former conservative presidential candidate, Noboa ran on a centrist platform to defeat the chosen candidate of Ecuador’s former leftist strongman Rafael Correa, currently residing in Belgium to avoid corruption charges. How Noboa will govern is still unclear. However, a security partnership with Washington could help steer the country back from the precipice of becoming a narco-state, even with a Biden administration that seems to be adrift with a non-existent Latin America policy.
Indeed, to accomplish this, Washington would have to greatly bolster its offering of technical assistance, intelligence sharing, and equipment for Ecuador’s security forces and prisons, which have become a central hub for criminal groups. The United States must expand beyond its anti-money laundering program with more focus on dismantling the drug cartels and the corrupt regional officials that empower them.
More broadly, the Biden administration must abandon its hands-off approach and vigorously confront the region’s weak policies against drug trafficking. Whether it’s Mexico’s failed “hugs, not bullets” strategy or Colombia’s fruitless “total peace” plan, the Western Hemisphere can no longer afford to indulge policies that turn a blind eye to expanding transnational criminality as it sows chaos south of the border while flooding the U.S. with fentanyl and millions of illegal migrants. Both Colombia and Mexico are run by leaders unlikely to adopt tough anti-narco positions, but the Biden administration must at least make the case.
There are also broader geopolitical implications at stake. Ecuador is among the most China-dependent countries in the Western Hemisphere. Ecuador’s debt to China is equivalent to roughly 5 percent of the South American country’s GDP, giving it one of the most substantial debt-servicing burdens in the Western Hemisphere. Even pro-U.S. leader Guillermo Lasso had to make the trek to Beijing during his short presidency and cautiously managed relations with China. If the United States can effectively partner with Ecuador to overcome its daunting security challenges, it could create a political framework to curb Beijing’s substantial influence and show the region that an alliance with the United States is preferable to dependency on China’s communist regime.
Ecuador’s rapid descent into chaos is symptomatic of the dysfunction of Latin America’s politics. Whether it’s uncontrollable massive migration flows, erosion of national sovereignty, or unprecedented narco-violence, many countries of the hemisphere risk becoming failed states. This directly threatens America’s national security. If the Biden administration does not act, the task will once again fall to Congress, which should shift security aid and funding toward Ecuador and other willing partners and away from countries like Colombia and Mexico, whose current leadership refuses to face the narcotrafficking threat seriously.
One way or another, Washington must ramp up efforts to contain the spread of transnational criminal syndicates to stem the further destabilization of the Americas.
Andres Martinez-Fernandez is a Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America at The Heritage Foundation.