Yet Another Drug War Failure

An especially hot news item in 2024 has been the surge of drug-related violence in Ecuador.  Until recent years, Ecuador was hailed as an island of relative stability in the swirling violence of the illegal drug trade in the Western hemisphere.  The situation there contrasted with the level of chaos and violence in neighboring countries such as Peru and Colombia, as well as the central arena of drug trafficking in Mexico and Central America.  American retirees found the country to be an especially appealing destination.

That presumption of stability was always somewhat exaggerated.  In Ecuador violent criminal gangs “have existed for decades,” security analyst David Saucedo notes, “but with the arrival of the Mexican cartels, such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), they made local alliances, and in this way, they became their operating arms for drug trafficking.”

The notion of today’s Ecuador as one of Latin America’s safer countries is a tenacious episode of nostalgia.  The murder rate in that country has soared from 6.9 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2019 to 26.7 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2022, and preliminary statistics indicate that the upward trend is continuing.  When voters elected Daniel Noboa president in October 2023, he made it clear that he would take an especially hard line against the drug cartels.  Drug policy experts now talk about Ecuador with similar degrees of concern that they had reserved for Mexico and other central players in the drug trade.

Even members of the political elite in Ecuador are increasingly vulnerable to the violence.  One prominent candidate in the October 2023 presidential election was assassinated just eleven days before the balloting.  Shortly thereafter, Ecuador’s youngest mayor, Brigette Garcia, was kidnapped and murdered in the coastal town of San Vicente.  Following the January 2024 unrest, new President Daniel Noboa declared an “internal armed conflict” and ordered national security forces to neutralize more than 20 armed groups classified as “terrorists.”

Despite such spectacular policy failures, drug warriors in the United States and other countries cling to hard-line strategies and refuse to face an inconvenient economic truth.  Governments are not able to dictate whether people use mind-altering substances.  Such vices have been part of human culture throughout history.  Governments can determine only whether reputable businesses or violent criminal gangs are the suppliers.  A prohibition strategy guarantees that it will be the latter – with all the accompanying violence and corruption.  The ongoing bloody struggles among rival cartels to control the lucrative trafficking routes to the United States merely confirm that historical pattern.

At the moment, the international drug trade is largely under the control of Mexico’s two leading cartels; Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation.  Gunmen from an Ecuadorian gang believed aligned with Jalisco New Generation took over a major television station during a live broadcast and brandished explosives in early January.  After the takeover of the TV station, President Noboa designated 20 drug-trafficking gangs as terrorist groups and authorized the military to “neutralize” them.  Thousands of accused cartel members were imprisoned in just the first few weeks following Naboa’s edict.

Washington’s reaction to the cartel’s attack on the television station and Naboa’s militant response confirms that U.S. drug policy remains intact and as unimaginative as ever.  The Biden administration issued a statement following the January events condemning the attacks.  “We reaffirm our commitment to a close partnership with Ecuador, including in the fight against criminal organizations.”  Such aggressive policies in other countries have not fared well, however.  Indeed, the principal impact has been to increase the level of violence and temporarily cause cartels to relocate some of their operations.

Ecuador has been increasingly attractive as a shipping point for drugs because the South American country is sandwiched between two top cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru.  Despite its overall poverty, Ecuador also has a large legal foreign trade.  Ships sail to ports in the United States, Europe, Australia, and other destinations with huge containers of bananas – Ecuador is the world’s top exporter – and those containers are especially good places to hide cocaine.

In a few short years, experts note, the experience and muscle of the Mexican cartels has turned Ecuador into the shipment point for almost one-third of the cocaine entering Europe.  According to a 2023 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the proportion of cocaine reported to the Regional Intelligence Office for Western Europe with Ecuador identified as a departure point rose from 14 percent in 2018 to 28 percent in 2021.  Much of the cocaine was connected to Mexican cartels who have moved into producer countries like Colombia following the 2016 peace accords there between the government and leftist rebels.  Coca fields in Colombia have also been moving closer to the border with Ecuador due to the breakup of criminal groups after the 2016 demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.  Narcotics trafficking is a business, after all, and leaders of such operations seek profit maximization.  Ecuador is merely the latest arena in which conditions for that goal have become more appealing.

Yet officials in both Ecuador and the United States believe that the same strategies that have failed in Mexico, Central America, and Ecuador’s Andean neighbors will somehow be effective this time in Ecuador.  Expecting long-term victories over the cartels is folly.  Developments in Colombia, Mexico, and other drug-trafficking nations over multiple decades confirm that U.S. and Western strategy is doomed to fail.  Ecuador is just the most recent proof.  Prohibition is akin to expecting long-term victory in a game of Wack-a-Mole.

Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs. Dr. Carpenter held various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato institute. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).

Author: Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. Dr. Carpenter held various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato institute. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).