Monday, June 17, 2024

Opinion | The assassination of Fernando Villavicencio marks Ecuador’s slide into chaos

Opinion | The assassination of Fernando Villavicencio marks Ecuador’s slide into chaos

Gabriel Pasquini is an Argentine journalist and fiction writer. He has written two novels, co-authored three nonfiction books and has edited and translated several notable works and story collections.

The assassination of Ecuadoran presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio in Quito on Wednesday is the latest escalation of the ongoing war between the anarchic world of gangs and what former president Rafael Correa defined after the killing as a “failed state.”

Villavicencio, shot multiple times while exiting a political rally, is one more victim in a country where extreme violence has become the criminal organizations’ way of not just settling scores but also communicating with society. Their aim has been to tame an entire nation through terror.

Homicide rates soared to more than 25 per 100,000 in 2022, and might rise even higher this year, experts say. Street shootings, car bombings and corpses hanging in the streets have become normal, as gangs battle one another over turf. Corrupt law enforcement officials have stood by and watched it happen.

But even in a country growing numb to such spectacular violence, the killing of a presidential candidate 11 days before the national elections is shocking. “This is a political crime,” President Guillermo Lasso declared. (Lasso is leaving office after dissolving the country’s legislature to block his own impeachment, a procedure that led to snap elections.)

Lasso blamed the organized crime his administration has so far failed to suppress. And this is not the only failure of government in a country that up to last year had not recovered from the pandemic, and where poverty affects roughly 25 percent of the population.

Bordering cocaine producers in Peru and Colombia, Ecuador has long been a corridor for drug exports to Europe, the United States and Australia. Ecuador’s power vacuum has allowed local gangs to grow strong as agents for Mexican and Colombian cartels. They have begun to dominate urban areas, collecting extortion payments — vacunas — to help fund their enterprise.

The Lasso administration started incarcerating gang leaders but failed to control the prisons, which the gangs had colonized. Battles over the prisons have led to at least 14 jail massacres since 2021. Last month, riots broke out in seven prisons; 31 people were killed. Around the same time, the mayor of the port city of Manta, Agustín Intriago, who like Villavicencio had a special security detail because he had received death threats, was assassinated while inspecting a building.

What followed was a sordid plot by players bending to no rule. At the end of the riots in July, José Adolfo Macías Villamar, known as Fito, head of the powerful gang Los Choneros, made a public statement from prison calling for a “mob peace” (paz mafiosa) that was echoed in similar video messages from other gang leaders. One of them, his face hidden under a hood, thanked Interior Minister Juan Zapata for “hearing our request and accepting a peace dialogue.”

The Ecuadoran press accused Lasso of favoring a deal that would have given Los Choneros tacit control over the prisons. Lasso denied there were any ongoing negotiations with the gangs.

Negotiating a truce with criminal organizations is not a new idea in Ecuador. The Correa administration began to legalize certain gangs in 2007 and homicides per 100,000 people fell from about 16 to 6 between then and 2016. Last year, then-Interior Minister Patricio Carrillo suggested “self-regulation” as the best way to contain the violence — meaning cutting a deal with the gangs. Carrillo was still insisting on the idea in May. “Choneros was a hegemonic group that managed to contain violence,” Carrillo said. It’s necessary to “search for a self-regulating mechanism that has worked” in “Cali, Medellín and Tijuana.”

The problem is that negotiations increase competition among gangs — and even within them. A truce might be broken to harm the boss who agreed to it. Destroying a deal could be a signal to the government to give equal terms to an excluded group or extract better ones.

This is why the relevant precedent to heed should be El Salvador. From 2012 to 2014, El Salvador’s government negotiated in secret a truce with gangs — the feared maras — that temporarily reduced homicides. After two years, one of the gangs broke the agreement, and the homicide rate soared to 103 per 100,000 people.

El Salvador’s current president, Nayib Bukele, also tried to negotiate with the maras, first as mayor of San Salvador and then again in the early days of his national administration. But the result was the same: more massacres and violence. Eventually, the breaking of the truce led to Bukele’s new strategy: replacing a failing democracy with unconstrained authoritarianism.

A few days after Lasso’s statements denying a negotiation with the gangs, Villavicencio, a regular denouncer of mafias and their connections to political power, said he received a threatening message from Fito, the leader of Los Choneros. The next day, he got another. About a week later, he was killed — maybe by Los Choneros, maybe by someone trying to blame them. This is the new world Ecuador has entered. Videos showing people presenting themselves as Los Lobos gang members and claiming responsibility for the assassination circulated soon after, only to be discredited. Six Colombian citizens were detained by the authorities on suspicion of having been hired to kill the candidate. The gunman, who was shot himself and died in police custody, had a Latin Kings tattoo.

After Villavicencio’s death, Lasso decreed a state of emergency, suspending constitutional liberties in Ecuador (once again). Will Ecuador follow in the footsteps of El Salvador and try to trade freedom for safety? Will it make a risky pact with criminal forces as Salvadorans have tried in vain? Will it just keep striving to steady a ship being sucked into a vortex of anomie and violence? Or is there space for a completely different (and as yet unimagined) policy — one that would require the country to overcome its deep and abiding political polarization?

These are the unenviable options that whoever wins the elections in little more than a week will have to face.

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