For years, Ecuador enjoyed a relative degree of peace, as its neighbours, Colombia and Peru, were wrangling with internal conflicts as chief protagonists in the international supply of cocaine. However, things have changed dramatically in recent times. On 9 January 2024, the recently elected president, Daniel Noboa, said that the country was in a state of ‘internal armed conflict’ against 22 criminal groups that he described as ‘narco-terrorists’.

One of the most visible incidents of Ecuador’s growing problem with violence occurred in August 2023 when presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated at a campaign rally in Quito just weeks before the elections. Since Villavicencio’s murder, several incidents have occurred, including the arrest of the Colombian hitmen involved in his death and their subsequent murders in a prison, which has deprived the authorities of crucial evidence in the investigation.6 The year 2023 ended as the most violent recorded in the history of Ecuador.

The situation in Ecuador is complex, and more research into the political-economic factors behind how this once stable country descended into violent, crime-driven chaos needs to be undertaken if we are to fully comprehend the situation. Nevertheless, there are some key features of Ecuador’s criminal landscape that we do understand, and which can at least partly explain how the country has arrived at this critical juncture.

The existence of at least three intertwined criminal markets, the presence of transnational organized crime groups as well as local criminal networks, and the country’s poor resilience capacity to respond to and mitigate the effects of organized crime are all pivotal to understanding the complex criminal ecosystem that has emerged in force in recent years. In the last edition of the Global Organized Crime Index, published in September 2023, scores for Ecuador’s criminal markets and criminal actors are revealing.

This analysis provides but an initial understanding of the background. A more comprehensive assessment of how intersecting criminal markets, like arms trafficking and extortion, operate in the country will be essential in formulating sustainable, practicable responses to the crisis.