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A country's shift toward violence has been on full display this week in Ecuador

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A shift towards violence in Ecuador was on full display this week when masked gunmen took over a television newscast. No one was killed, and the suspects were arrested, but it followed the escape from prison of two leaders of the country's most powerful gangs. Prisoners took security guards hostage, and the president of Ecuador declared a state of emergency for internal conflict. Domenica Avila-Luna is a political analyst in Ecuador, and she told me she's shocked by the chaos that unfolded.

DOMENICA AVILA-LUNA: What is happening? This has never happened in the country before. Ecuador used to be a country - very safe, very secure. So it was definitely shocking. And this was an attempt to create social panic. And that is what effectively happened. I was out in the city, and it was crazy to see everybody trying to run away from the central park or for any public space and just go hide yourself in our houses. And we do have a curfew at the moment, but the curfew starts at 11 p.m. and the situation is that by 3, 4 p.m., streets were already empty. Nobody wanted to leave the houses.

And this is also linked to the fact that we have two big criminals - big heads of these criminal organizations - who have escaped prison in the last days. So for me, it was like, OK, this is really weird. The people that assaulted the TV station, they know they are going to get caught. They are in a specific place, and the police effectively captured them quite quickly. So it seemed to me that it was a bit of, OK, I'm creating this distraction and maybe that facilitated the criminals to escape the country.

FADEL: Now, you said part of the goal was to create social panic, and that's what's happened. In the big picture, what do these armed gangs want?

AVILA-LUNA: I think there are two main aspects to consider. The first one is that Ecuador is a really attractive place for drug trafficking in the sense that it has a geographical position that facilitates using the ports to send the drugs to Europe and the U.S., etc., and also, it has weak institutions. So if somebody gets captured, how easy it is to process them and put them in prison, well, there are a lot of ways to kind of like get rid of that. And also, there has been a lot of evidence of bribing judges and judges have facilitate these criminals out of jail.

FADEL: But what changed? I mean, as you mentioned, just a few years ago, Ecuador was seen as one of the safest countries in Latin America. What happened?

AVILA-LUNA: Well, there are a lot of factors that have influenced this change - a weakening in the institutions, a couple of really, really bad governments and the pandemic also contributed to strengthen drug trafficking not only in Ecuador but in the region.

FADEL: Now, Ecuador's president, Daniel Noboa, is quite young, 36. What is he doing to get these gangs under control, and does the public have confidence in him?

AVILA-LUNA: He was a former congress member, but, like, this is actually, like, his first experience, like, in executive power, himself. It's also important to consider that he won an extraordinary election. We have another election for president in 2025, and he's very keen to run for office again. So he really needs to get this right if he wants the people to trust him again. And, like, he has put the military on the street, and he has been very clear that he's not going to negotiate at all with these criminal groups.

Something positive that I see is that he is not only focusing on the criminals themselves, but also in how the judiciary function is responding to them, because now these criminal organizations are terrorist targets. He has said that if there is a judge or a prosecutor that is being found related to these organizations, these people will also be judged as part of these organizations and then judged under this terrorism concept. And he has been also receiving a lot of international cooperation. And I think that's really valuable, to be honest, because we are not talking about a local problem. Drug trafficking is an international problem and it's something that requires such a response. But the root causes of the problems of insecurity in Ecuador are also linked to poverty and also linked to lack of education and lack of employment. So we do need some structural changes.

FADEL: Domenica Avila-Luna is an Ecuadorean political analyst at King's College London, speaking to us from Ecuador. Thank you for your time.

AVILA-LUNA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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