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Ecuador to Expand Military's Role in Fighting Crime

Ecuador's government is planning to increase the armed forces' involvement in law enforcement, a move which, although a practical response to rising crime, could have serious political consequences.

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On April 26, Ecuador’s newly-appointed Defense Minister Miguel Carvajal unveiled a plan to train some 4,000 military personnel to combat rising insecurity in the country. The announcement comes just days after President Rafael Correa described the battle against organized crime as a priority for the military, saying "there cannot be a successful fight against crime without the participation of the armed forces."

The president’s remarks have been controversial. Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, which Correa enthusiastically promoted, declares that “internal protection and upholding law and order are exclusive duties of the state and the responsibility of the national police force,” whereas the armed forces are responsible for “defense of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Although Correa has maintained that the use of the armed forces in internal security is within the bounds of the constitution, some of his recent justifications for the move have seemed to contradict the language of the charter itself. At a swearing-in ceremony for a new military command last week, the leader defended the shift by saying “a poor country cannot afford the luxury of having armed forces just for use in conventional warfare.”

Much of Correa’s motivation for the shift is political, as he has had a rocky relationship with the Ecuadorean National Police (PNE) for most of his tenure. After he announced plans to roll back police bonuses and promotions in September 2010, elements of the PNE protested, taking to the streets of Quito and allegedly blockading the president inside a hospital (see image, above). Correa was able to put down the uprising -- which the government characterized as an attempted coup -- with the help of the armed forces, and has relied more heavily on the military for public security since.

But the move is also a practical response to the police force’s notorious reputation. Extortion of undocumented immigrants is reportedly a common practice among Ecuador's police, and in 2011 the government offered amnesty to any victims who reported the crime. Even high level officials in the PNE have been accused of corruption. According to a leaked United States diplomatic cable from July 2009, the PNE commander at the time received regular kickbacks from a Chinese human trafficking ring and facilitated the sale of stolen cars. Considering these allegations, Correa’s reluctance to entrust the police alone to confront organized crime makes sense.

Still, involving the military in citizen security is not without risk. As a 2010 report by the Washington Office on Latin America notes, tasking the armed forces with civilian policing can compromise the political insulation of the institution, providing army officers with an incentive to use their position to influence the political process. Several of the president’s critics have suggested that this could even provide Correa with the potential to bypass democratic norms. Correa-critic newspaper El Universo questioned the scope and duration of the move, and opposition politician Francisco Huerta told EFE that he was concerned that the military “could be converted into a repressive force for the government.”

There is reason to doubt this, however. Gabriel Aguilera, an assistant professor of international security studies at the US Air War College, argues that the Ecuadorean military is relatively impervious to politicization, as demonstrated by its status as “the only major institution that has continued to function reasonably well throughout the country’s historical turmoil.”

For now, there seems to be no cause for alarm. The Ecuadorean military have previously taken part in crackdowns on organized crime (1,871 soldiers served in anti-crime operations last year), and Carvajal has vowed that military units will not serve as substitutes for the police or take over their jurisdiction.

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