Is Ecuador Experiencing the Birth of a New ‘Plan Colombia’ Amidst Heightened Security Concerns?

Martino Fabris

U.S. Army Gen. Laura Richardson (center) and Special Presidential Advisor Christopher Dodd (left) meet President Daniel Noboa (right) during their visit to Ecuador from January 22-25, 2024 Source: SOUTHCOM

In January, Ecuador experienced an unprecedented wave of violence, starting with an incident on January 7th at La Regional prison in Guayaquil. Adolfo Macías Villamar, leader of the criminal group “Los Choneros,” was meant to be transferred to a safer prison within the complex but had already escaped. His escape sparked riots in multiple prisons, resulting in the deaths of several guards. The situation escalated further on January 9th when armed men attacked a television studio in Guayaquil during a live broadcast, using dynamite and firearms to terrorize staff and viewers.

These events highlighted the growing violence and determination of criminal groups in the country. Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa responded by declaring a state of emergency on the same day and instituting martial law throughout the country due to the presence of an internal armed conflict. He ordered the mobilization of the Armed Forces and the National Police to counter the actions of numerous criminal gangs. According to Article 3 of the government decree, the Armed Forces and the National Police will be mobilized to ensure the sovereignty and integrity of the territory against transnational organized crime, terrorist organizations, and non-state belligerent actors. The decree mentions over 20 such criminal and armed groups.

Regional and international reactions were swift, with the United States condemning the attacks and offering assistance to the Ecuadorian government. In particular, the U.S. government sent a delegation to Quito just days after the events, including high-ranking U.S. officials such as President Biden’s special advisor for the Americas, Christopher Dodd, and General Laura Richardson, commander of the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). During the institutional visit, Ecuador was promised a significant military aid package worth approximately $93.4 million, along with other forms of support for internal security. These measures may resemble some of those adopted in Colombia as part of the “Plan Colombia,” a U.S. security assistance program that spent nearly $10 billion between 2000 and 2015. However, key differences between Ecuador and Colombia suggest that a direct approach like Plan Colombia may not be suitable or effective in addressing Ecuador’s specific challenges.

The Cooperation’s Nitty-Gritty: Delving into the Details

Ceremony of the delivery of the Lockheed C-130 Hercules to the Ecuadorian Air Force Source: USEmbassyEC

As elucidated, in the wake of the tumultuous events that shook the Andean nation to its core, the United States responded with alacrity, marshaling a considerable array of resources and initiatives aimed at fortifying security measures and combatting the scourge of drug trafficking. This concerted effort manifested in the dispatch of a substantial quantity of over 20,000 bulletproof vests, alongside a diverse range of essential emergency management equipment, which included logistical vehicles and ambulances. Furthermore, the United States articulated its steadfast commitment to enhancing the efficacy of Ecuador’s law enforcement apparatus by bolstering the presence of FBI personnel within the country. This augmentation is intended to provide invaluable support to the National Police and the Attorney General’s Office in their tireless efforts to uphold the rule of law and combat criminal activities.

Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security unveiled ambitious plans to deploy a cadre of skilled personnel to Ecuador, envisaging their role in furnishing additional support in critical domains such as digital forensic analysis. Such specialized capabilities are deemed indispensable in the ongoing struggle to dismantle criminal networks, curtail drug trafficking operations, and root out systemic corruption. These multifaceted initiatives, woven into the fabric of a comprehensive $93.4 million investment package, as announced by the commander of US SOUTHCOM, underscore the depth of the United States’ commitment to fortifying Ecuador’s security infrastructure and capacitating its law enforcement agencies.

Significantly, the recent delivery of a mobile police barrack and a Lockheed C-130 Hercules, with a combined valuation of more than $12 million, to the Ecuadorian armed forces serves as a tangible testament to the enduring partnership and unwavering solidarity between the United States and Ecuador in confronting shared security challenges. Through such collaborative endeavors, it is hoped that the resilience of Ecuador’s security apparatus will be fortified, paving the way for a safer and more stable future for the nation and its citizens.

Distinguishing Factors from Plan Colombia in US-Ecuador Security Cooperation

The 19th Napo Jungle Brigade of the Ecuadorian Armed Forces conducts a reconnaissance military operation. Source: Fuerzas Armadas del Ecuador

The cooperation agreement between the United States and Ecuador emerges as an intricate interplay of collaboration and contrasts, representing a complex framework of geopolitical dynamics and challenges faced by both countries. While both plans, including the United States’ aid to Ecuador and Plan Colombia, aim to strengthen security and stability in the region, their implementation reveals a series of substantial divergences that mirror the complexity of local realities.

The emphasis placed on enhancing military cooperation, intelligence sharing, and training underscores the common desire to address security threats. However, it is in the details where the most significant divergences emerge. While Plan Colombia was characterized by a substantial flow of funding, perhaps reflecting the perception of politically motivated rebel groups’ threat in the Colombian context, the proposed aid for Ecuador appears more modest, signaling a different assessment of priorities and resources needed to address a complex criminal landscape. Colombia, being a cocaine-producing country, has had to confront an internal war fueled by drug trafficking and territorial disputes among rebel groups. In contrast, Ecuador primarily serves as a transit corridor for drug trafficking, facing a different but equally pressing challenge. Ecuadorian criminal gangs, although less structured than Colombian rebels, still pose a significant threat to the nation’s security and stability, emphasizing the importance of a flexible and targeted approach.

In addition to divergences in financial dimensions and the threats faced, political and institutional differences also emerge. While Ecuador has shown sensitivity to sovereignty regarding US military operations on its territory, the same sensitivity has not affected the approval and implementation of Plan Colombia. This underscores the importance of understanding the political and institutional specificities of each country in the context of bilateral cooperation.

In conclusion, while both agreements reflect a shared commitment to addressing regional security challenges, it is essential to recognize and respect contextual differences and national specificities. Only through open dialogue, thorough analysis of challenges, and mutual collaboration will it be possible to develop effective strategies to promote security and stability throughout the region.

  • Considering Ecuador’s internal security dynamics and the connections between Ecuadorian criminal groups and Mexican cartels, would prioritizing intelligence-focused cooperation over physical resources offer greater effectiveness?
  • In light of Ecuador’s multifaceted security challenges, what are the potential advantages of strengthening cooperation within the region, aside from its collaboration with the United States?
  • What are your thoughts on the balance between national sovereignty and international cooperation in addressing internal security issues, particularly concerning the recent events in Ecuador and the response from the United States?

Suggested readings:

A “Plan Ecuador” Is Needed: U.S. Assistance Should Draw From Lessons From The Past”. War On The Rocks, February 5, 2024.

“How to Understand Ecuador’s War on Gangs”. Foreign Policy, March 13, 2024.

“Why Ecuador Should Not Replicate the ‘Bukele Model’”. The Washington Office on Latin America, February 20, 2024.

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Is Ecuador Experiencing t…

by Martino Fabris time to read: 5 min