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Ecuadorian president declares a state of emergency amid gang violence outbreak

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Daily life has come to a standstill in much of Ecuador after shocking violence this week following the prison escape of a notorious drug lord. President Daniel Noboa has declared a state of emergency and authorized the military to target gangs. Ecuador was once known as the island of peace for its location between narcotics giants Colombia and Peru. But within the past two years, it has become a haven for drug lords looking to export cocaine from South America.

For more on the developing situation in Ecuador, let's bring in Will Freeman, who's a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks for being here.

WILL FREEMAN: Thanks for having me on.

SHAPIRO: Let's begin with this gang leader who escaped from prison on Sunday, Adolfo Macias. How did we get from his prison break to this point where the military's patrolling the streets of the capital city of Quito and the entire country is on edge?

FREEMAN: Well, everything happened really fast. Macias' escaped from prison basically compelled the government of Daniel Noboa to send security forces into the prison where he escaped to reassert control. But that was very threatening to the gangs. Now, going back several years, the gangs in Ecuador run the prisons, operate their criminal schemes from behind prison walls. So essentially, this was a frontal confrontation by the state. The wave of violence we've seen since is essentially gangs trying to protest that and trying to intimidate the state into going back to the status quo ante.

SHAPIRO: The leader of another gang also went missing yesterday from prison. Is there any evidence of coordination between gangs? As the government says, organized crime has basically declared war on the institutions of the country.

FREEMAN: You know, solid evidence that they're coordinating I haven't seen. However, I do think the fact that we were seeing car bombs set off at multiple locations across the country, multiple symbols of public and government control attacked at the same time suggest that there was some kind of communication between them.

SHAPIRO: Put this into context for us - Ecuador, as we mentioned, has long been thought of as a relatively peaceful place compared to its neighbors. What has changed?

FREEMAN: I mean, it's a complicated story. The situation really started to unravel since 2017. Global drug trafficking has undergone quite a transformation. We're seeing a surge in demand for cocaine in Europe. Over 300 tons of cocaine were seized there just last year. That's almost quadruple the level of 2016. And that's made trafficking cocaine by sea increasingly important. As all that's been going on, gangs, drug trafficking groups have increasingly been scrambling for control of ports in South America. And Ecuador, wedged right between major cocaine producers Colombia and Peru, is home to several of those most important ports.

Domestically, things have also been deteriorating. We've seen one government after the other in Ecuador, from the populist left to the conservative right, unable or perhaps unwilling to really curb the kind of corruption that allows gangs to buy off members of the military and police, coerce judges, take control of the prisons, as I mentioned. And it's come together into a sort of perfect storm.

SHAPIRO: The current president is relatively new to his job. He's young. He's not very experienced. How is Daniel Noboa proposing to deal with this situation?

FREEMAN: Well, it's only been six weeks since he was inaugurated, if you can believe it. So we're still seeing his security policy take shape. In those first six weeks, I saw him primarily avoiding controversy. He really hadn't taken any bold steps or suggested anything that went far beyond what previous governments had tried to use to control crime and mostly failed. However, I do think that this escalation in violence has given him no choice but to act and to start to take those bold steps.

He is set to hold, within the next 60 days, a referendum which would potentially allow Ecuador to set up an extradition treaty with the United States so that they could begin extraditing top mafia bosses instead of keeping them in these ineffective prisons. The referendum also includes questions on judicial reform and other anticorruption measures. So I view all that as quite encouraging. That said, we're going to have to see if there is the political will to make these reforms reality and not just talk about them.

SHAPIRO: That's Will Freeman, fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you very much.

FREEMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gus Contreras
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.