“It’s very difficult, but I didn’t come thinking it would be easy.”
Last week may go down in history as one of the most distressing for Ecuador, and for President Daniel Noboa, it appears to be a baptism by fire that will shape how his government, launched on November 23rd, deals with the increasingly critical security situation in the country.
In just 2 days, the youngest man to assume the presidency of Ecuador had to grapple not only with the escape of one of the most dangerous men in the country, Adolfo Macías, also known as “Fito” and leader of the criminal gang Los Choneros, but also with the chaos of violent riots in six different prisons.
In response, Noboa declared a “state of exception” and authorized operations in which both the military and the police aimed to restore order in the prisons and, more broadly, in the rest of the country.
However, instead of restoring order, the declaration of a state of emergency triggered a response that vividly illustrates the violent spiral Ecuador finds itself in: a group of armed men seized control of the TC channel facilities, broadcasting live images to the nation and the world, while explosions and other acts of violence were reported in several cities.
Confronted with this dire situation, Noboa declared the existence of an “internal armed conflict” and conveyed a resolute message: “We will not negotiate with terrorists.”
Here, we present the exclusive content of an interview in which the Ecuadorian president discusses with the BBC his plan to address the current crisis gripping the country.
This has been a horrible week, perhaps one of the worst weeks, if not the worst, in the modern history of Ecuador. The latest information is that the US State Department said it will send a delegation of police, military and diplomatic personnel. What is your reaction to this announcement?
I’m glad to hear it. It’s encouraging to see that the international community is really paying attention to what’s happening here because I think it affects everyone. Narco-terrorists (gangs) have operations here, in Europe, in the United States, and I think we need to solve the problem from the roots. And the root of the problem is here, at the origin.
It has been a difficult week, but they have been very difficult years. In the last year alone, there were 7,200 murders. Ecuador is in a state of war. Heavy-handed tactics have been used in the past and have not worked. How can you be sure that this time it will be different?
I don’t think strong-arm tactics have especially worked in this country in the last twelve years because they haven’t been really tough. They were applied without planning and temporarily. What we are trying to establish in Ecuador is a new security system that allows us to have safe ports and control borders in a different way.
Our prison system will also have real changes that have not occurred in the last decade. Now is the time to take control, now is the time to solve the security problem and start growing as a nation to give opportunities to young people.
We have one of the worst youth unemployment rates for men and women between 18 and 29 years old. And this unemployment problem is complementary to the security problem.
You say that Ecuador is in a state of “armed internal conflict.” It is a very strong language.
It is. In recent years, governments have not assumed full responsibility for the security issue, and we have to establish the truth. The truth is that there is an armed conflict at the local level. There are unconventional militias, heavily armed, very well organized and with a lot of money. We have to combine two things. First, security for businesses, for education, for the population in general and, on the economic side, giving opportunities to young people who end up joining these militias, committing crimes and doing horrible things. It has to be simultaneous.
Many times what is seen is the stick, but the second thing does not come, which is the genuine rehabilitation of neighborhoods in cities like Quito and Guayaquil.
Exactly. The second is what makes it sustainable. If you only come with the stick, you will continue to have more than two million unemployed young people, the neighborhoods will continue without public services, without education, without medical care, or psychological care for people who have been affected by violence. That is also a key factor. That’s why I always talk about both things, security and employment. And the government has to work on those two things simultaneously.
The prison system is the power base of these gangs. The experts I speak to and you yourself say it needs a deep restructuring. How will you do it?
We have an excess prison population of around 3,000 people. The system is not equipped for that number of people.
First, following Ecuadorian law and international treaties, we must expel some of the foreigners who are in our prison system; there are about 15,000. Next, we are going to build two new prisons, one maximum security and one super maximum security. Between the two we can accommodate more than 3,000 people. In this way, we can have an adequate distribution of people according to the infrastructure and with a real segmentation system.
You can’t have a person who ran a red light next to another person who raped five women or killed three. It is essential to have correct segmentation, separating people according to the crimes they have committed. They also have to be far from the areas where they committed these crimes because the leaders of the terrorist groups have their families, their militias, their operations, a few blocks from the prison. We can’t continue with a system like that, it clearly hasn’t worked, and we have to change it.
Prison reform is an always pending issue in Latin America. What makes you think that you can change it in Ecuador?
I think I owe it to the people. But it has to be accompanied by social reform. In our tax reform, we give tax deduction benefits to people who hire workers with a judicial background. That is just one of the elements that we are trying to implement to reintegrate these people into society so that they do not continue to commit crimes and return to prison. We need to protect the general population and also have sustainable plans to rehabilitate people.
Where is Adolfo Macías, alias Fito?
Right now, we are looking for him. Right now, we have some clues. We have spoken with the armed forces, also with international cooperation and we are working on it. We can’t give any warning, but we are going to go to the end, we are going to find him.
You have proposed a reform in the extradition process. What would it be like and why is it necessary?
It is necessary because Ecuador has become the destination for many criminals. After staying a couple of years, they have managed to obtain Ecuadorian citizenship and, according to the Constitution, no Ecuadorian can be extradited to any other country.
He may have committed 100 murders in another country, but if he is in Ecuador, he cannot be extradited. It is a game; it is a mechanism so that criminals can stay in a place where they are safe.
The Metastasis case against corruption seems to show that it is not only the prison system that is corrupt, but also the judiciary. That is an enormously difficult task.
It’s very difficult, but I didn’t come thinking it would be easy. It’s very complicated. Elements of the judicial system and our armed forces, in the police in politics… It has spread everywhere. But we are starting to see changes. Anyone who helps a criminal network, a terrorist group, now automatically becomes a terrorist.
Is Ecuador a narco-state?
We are fighting every day to avoid becoming a narco-state.
Can you win this fight?
I do believe we can win, and I will not stop fighting until we win.
There is an example in the region that is El Salvador with President Bukele and his fight against the gang problem that has received popular support and has been effective. Is it an important reference point for you?
Some elements, but not really. Ecuador has a different reality, different problems and a different way of thinking. The way to solve this is the Ecuador way, not the El Salvador way. We are strict against terrorism and corruption, but also thinking about growth in society, services and the economy (…) We need more than security to make it sustainable.
If the armed forces are given broad powers to make arrests, are you concerned about the issue of human rights?
We are complying with international law, and I have been very clear with the armed forces and the police (…) We are at war and we need international laws that apply in war.
Groups like Los Choneros appear to have ties to powerful Mexican cartels. Is this fight something that should be fought together with Mexico? Is there anything else Mexico can do?
We must talk to our neighbors, to Mexico and the United States. There are also groups linked to the Albanian mafia, which controls the drug trade in Europe and that is why we need European support, which is crucial to solving this problem.