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.

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.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

Local police and justice officials are convinced that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) has strengthened its presence along the East Coast of the United States. The alarm follows a recent spate of violence -- of the type not seen in a decade -- which included dismembered bodies and...

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador's prison system is the headquarters of the country's largest gangs. It is also where one of these gangs, the MS13, is fighting amongst itself for control of the organization.

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

How the MS13 Got Its Foothold in Transnational Drug Trafficking

Throughout the continent, the debate on whether or not the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang is working with or for drug traffickers continues. In this investigation, journalist Carlos García tells the story of how a member of the MS13 entered the methamphetamine distribution business under the powerful auspices...

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Following Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, members of the military were charged, faced trial and sentenced to jail time. Even some members of a powerful elite unit known as the Kaibil were put behind bars. Among these prisoners, none were more emblematic than Captain Byron Lima...

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

José Adán Salazar Umaña is the only Salvadoran citizen currently on the US government's Kingpin List. But in his defense, Salazar Umaña claims is he is an honorable businessman who started his career by exchanging money along the borders between Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He does...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Guatemala's Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

Former Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla -- a decorated war hero and a longtime US ally -- finds himself treading water amidst a flurry of accusations about corruption and his connections to drug traffickers. López Bonilla is not the most well-known suspect in the cases against...