Over 18,000 citizens reportedly legally participate in community police units in Ecuador, a number that continues to grow, reflecting a regional trend indicative of state failure to provide security to citizens.
According to the Citizen Security Management Office, 1,500 Citizen Security Neighborhood Brigades were registered in Ecuador at the end of 2012, and nearly 2,000 more civilians are in the process of getting legally registered to participate. The Interior Ministry numbered the units at 2,165, with 18,606 participants, in August 2012.
These patrols have existed since 1995, but were institutionalized and regulated following a ministerial decree in 2011. As part of this agreement, brigade members are provided training, are required to work only as support to the police, and may not carry weapons. According to El Comercio, many members do carry sticks or whips when they go out at night, but when they find someone committing a crime, they simply hand them over to police, said one brigadier.
Members of these groups cited high levels of insecurity as their reason for taking part in these patrols, and the country’s Security Ministry reported that the work of these brigades has contributed to a reduction in crime.
InSight Crime Analysis
The rise of community police groups, both legal and illegal, in the region is a worrying sign of the failure of many governments to provide their citizens with acceptable levels of security. Outside of Ecuador, groups have become common in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Guatemala, with mixed results.
In Guatemala, community police — known as citizen security boards — were set up by the state, but a number operate illegally and many have been accused of criminal activities and violent vigilante justice. In Mexico, while community police in Guerrero look set to be legitimized, in Michoacan they have violently clashed with drug cartels and the authorities, taken soldiers hostage, and been accused by the government of drug trafficking ties.
In both Colombia and Peru, paramilitary “self-defense” groups backed by the military have committed severe human rights abuses in the name of counter-insurgency, including social cleansing. Notably, just before assuming office in 2011, President Ollanta Humala said the empowerment of vigilante groups would be a component of his security strategy.
The institutionalisation of Ecuador’s community brigades and legal restrictions placed on their work — particularly the prohibition against carrying weapons — lowers the possibility that these groups will take justice into their own hands or become involved in criminal activities themselves. However, ultimately they remain a symbol of institutional failure in security.