opinion | The rise in crime in Ecuador is devastating, but there is a way forward

On August 14, Pedro Briones, a congressional candidate and local political leader in Ecuador, was shot dead. The assassination came less than a week after Fernando Villavicencio, a presidential candidate and vocal anti-corruption critic, was shot as he left a campaign rally in the country's capital, Quito. The killings, so close to Ecuador's general elections scheduled for Sunday, have shocked Ecuadorians and provoked worldwide condemnation. The killings show that no one – not even a presidential candidate – is safe in Ecuador.

Christian Zurita, an investigative journalist and former colleague and close friend of Mr Villavicencio, was selected by her political party to run in his place.

What will happen next is uncertain, but it is clear that the country's severe political polarization will not help solve its crisis of violence.

The shooting of Mr Briones is under investigation and six Colombian nationals are being held in connection with the killing of Mr Villavicencio. How the country's criminal justice system handles the ongoing investigations will be a litmus test for the country. Ecuadorian politicians and their international partners must muster the political will and resources to conduct an independent and thorough investigation into the killings. If the authorities prosecute just a few hit men and leave it at that, criminal groups only get bolder. But if they take the longer, harder route – finding and bringing to justice those behind the killings and uncovering organized crime's ties to parts of the state – the country could find a way back from the brink.

As a political scientist specializing in Latin America, I have lived and worked in countries like Colombia and Guatemala, where gangs and organized crime groups began sowing chaos decades ago as they grew in power. Although Ecuador has historically escaped the drug-related violence and internal armed conflicts that plagued its South American neighbors in the second half of the 20th century, it has all the hallmarks of a drug trafficking paradise. It lies between Peru and Colombia the two largest coca producers in the world. And Ecuador's economy used dollars It has been legal tender since 2000, making it attractive to money launderers.

The 2017 demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which had long controlled Ecuador's trade routes, created a vacuum that new cartels and gangs are now trying to fill. Earlier this year I witnessed violence rewriting the rules of everyday life. Ecuador's homicide rate is now fourth highest in Latin America and the blackmail has reached terrifying proportions. As a result, the once busy streets are now eerily empty and shops have started to close at nightfall. One day, I watched a shopkeeper and his customers huddle around a smartphone to watch—and applaud—clips of vigilantism against suspected gang members. Many people I spoke to told me that they are planning to migrate. Since October, more than 77,000 have reached the US-Mexico border: a nearly eightfold increase from 2020.

Political mistakes have meant that Ecuador is barely able to cope with the spiral of violence. Rafael Correa, a populist who was the country's president from 2007 to 2017, made the first serious missteps. It is true that some measures taken by his government have contributed to savings Murders to new lows. But Mr. Correa eliminated that too Police Unit for Special Investigationsclosed a US military base which provided equipment for patrolling its airspace and vast territorial waters, and doubled the prison population, which creates breeding ground for gangs. His followers also made mistakes.

President Lenin Moreno cleaned Many of Mr. Correa's appointments to the executive and judiciary branches and won a referendum that reinstated presidential term limits abolished by his predecessor. the judiciary investigation initiated fell into corruption during the Correa years. A polarization emerged between Mr Correa's supporters, who claimed they were victims of a politicized justice system, while critics such as Mr Moreno argued that they were rebuilding the democratic separation of powers eroded under Mr Correa. As this political scuffle unfolded, the gangs turned to Ecuador overcrowded prisons into their own command centers and started doing that infiltrate government institutions and armed forces.

Guillermo Lasso, the current President of Ecuador, is in a struggle with Mr Correa's supporters in the National Assembly, which Mr Lasso dissolved by decree in May. Mr Lasso is rolled out state emergencies and even put troops in the streets to fight the gangs and cartels. But the power of criminal groups over the country has only increased. Worryingly, Mr Lasso's brother-in-law – formerly one of his closest advisers – is under investigation for alleged links to terrorism Albanian mafia. In March, a businessman involved in the case was found dead.

The surge in crime in Ecuador is crossing borders: Mexican cartels, Colombian and Venezuelan groups, and the Albanian mafia are all vying to control the country's drug trade and weaken the state. While finding a way forward may seem daunting, it is not impossible. To curb the power of organized crime and violence, authorities must root out corruption, investigate ties to local and national politicians, and trace their money launderers and contacts in the state.

This is a major challenge for a country whose institutions are increasingly being engulfed by crime. It requires continued cooperation and courage on the part of the country's police, prosecutors, judges and politicians. But it's been done before. Colombia could be a role model. From 2006, the government of this country began take steps investigate, prosecute and convict over 60 members of Congress, which supported and favored paramilitaries in drug trafficking.

President Lasso has invited the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Colombian Police to assist in the investigation into the murder of Mr. Villavicencio. However, for the effort to be truly effective, the collaboration on this and other cases must continue into the next government and beyond, regardless of who wins this Sunday.

Ecuador's leaders must resist the temptation to hand over the fight against crime entirely to the military or to use only firepower to fight back the cartels and gangs. This approach has often proved ineffective in countries like Mexico worsened the violence. Instead, Ecuador's leaders must support independent prosecutors, judges and the police.

Ecuador's Armed Forces, one of the country's armed forces most trusted institutionsis not intended to conduct criminal investigations, track down money launderers or expose corrupt officials. These are jobs for civil institutions such as the police and the judiciary. While these institutions are not immune to corruption and politicization within their ranks, they are beyond saving.

Polarization has dug deep rifts between Mr Correa's supporters and his opponents, including Mr Villavicencio. For the past week, politicians on both sides have tried to blame each other for the deteriorating security situation. To advance, they must unite around a common goal: to investigate criminal groups' ties to public officials without attempting to shield members of their own camp. Whoever wins the upcoming presidential election must look beyond political divisions and put the country above the party.

The assassination of Mr. Villavicencio marks a turning point. But there is still time to act before the country continues down the path embarked on by Colombia and Mexico. It is what Mr Villavicencio would have wanted.

Will Freeman is a Fellow in Latin American Studies with the Council on Foreign Relations. He focuses on understanding why developing democracies do or do not succeed in ending impunity for large-scale corruption.

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