What explains Ecuador’s late integration into the regional trend of powerful non-state armed actors infiltrating government branches and using violence to shape political outcomes?

What explains Ecuador’s late integration into the regional trend of powerful non-state armed actors infiltrating government branches and using violence to shape political outcomes?

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What explains Ecuador’s late integration into the regional trend of powerful non-state armed actors infiltrating government branches and using violence to shape political outcomes?

Research Advisor: Professor Laura Montoya


Ecuador's 2023 political landscape shifted dramatically following the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio. This event highlighted the growing influence of non-state armed actors, marked by a surge in violence and their infiltration of government branches. This research project investigates Ecuador's late integration into a regional trend, compared to countries like Colombia and Mexico that have long grappled with powerful non-state armed actors.

The proposed study employs a three-stage methodology. First, a comparative analysis will be conducted on the evolution of non-state armed actors in Colombia, Mexico, and Ecuador (2016-2024) focusing on violence, political influence, drug market dynamics, and policy responses. Second, a municipality-level database of events attributed to non-state armed actors in Ecuador (2016-2024) will be constructed using newspaper articles and official criminal records. Third, expert interviews in Ecuador will be conducted alongside a comparative analysis of strategies used by other countries in the region to combat non-state armed actors.

This research aims to produce a comparative study analyzing the historical development of non-state armed actors' power in these countries. It will also generate policy recommendations for Ecuador based on the research findings. The project expects to contribute to a broader understanding of non-state armed actors in Latin America and inform efforts to address this shared regional challenge.


The rise of violence in Ecuador highly interests me as it is my home country and I lived there almost my entire life. In doing so, I saw firsthand how the country transitioned from having problems of petty crimes into the current ongoing internal armed conflict between the government and non-state armed actors—the reigning drug trafficking gangs. Living in Ecuador lately has meant witnessing coup d’état attempts almost yearly, prison massacres where riots have killed hundreds of inmates and where guards would be held hostage, and more recently, the death of almost any public figure that would try and mitigate the drug trafficking gangs’ power. This is particularly important as there is a disparity on violence levels across municipalities. The increased drug trafficking, specifically the sophistication growth of the gangs, has been reported as the main trigger for the explosion of insecurity in the country by Ecuadorian authorities. Scholar’s studying the implications of criminal activity in a country argue that organized crime cannot exist without a state’s protection as it is a way to operate with impunity. While some may argue that recent violent events indicate that Ecuador has lost all control towards the non-state armed actors of drug trafficking gangs, looking at the region’s history indicates that Ecuador is in a nascent stage of losing control and is just entering the regional trend of powerful non-state armed actors influencing politics and using violence to shape political outcomes. A comparative study with other Latin American countries—primarily Colombia and Mexico—focusing on the involvement of non-state armed actors in governmental branches and the policies implemented to reduce their dominance, establishing a database of municipality-level events attributed to non-state armed actors, could significantly benefit Ecuador. Ecuadorian policymakers can identify specific infiltration points of non-state armed actors into government branches and draw lessons from successful strategies implemented in neighboring countries.

Research Objectives & Questions

The focus is on Ecuador's unique landscape in comparison to other countries in the region as the study aims to unravel the intricate factors that explain its delayed integration into the regional trend. The findings from this research will not only contribute to the understanding of Ecuador's situation but may also inform policy decisions aimed at ensuring a decisive crackdown on non-state armed actors’ violence and power. Ecuadorian policymakers can then make informed decisions on whether to implement successful strategies executed elsewhere. These decisions will be based on the answer to the main research question of: What explains Ecuador’s late integration into the regional trend of powerful non-state armed actors infiltrating government branches and using violence to shape political outcomes? Additionally, the database's functionality extends to the development of territorially focalized policies. This database will help inform hypothesis for the secondary research question of: What is the subnational variation in violence and links between non-state armed actors and political elites? The study has the potential to inform policy decisions, identify weaknesses, and develop region-specific policies. It aims to instill hope in Ecuadorian readers, encouraging critical evaluation of government approaches to reduce non-state armed groups' power and violence. I hope the findings from these initiatives will empower Ecuadorian officials to take the necessary actions, ensuring a decisive crackdown on non-state armed actors' violence and power. This, in turn, promises much-needed tranquility for the Ecuadorian populace in the years to come.


Ecuador, previously known as Latin America's second safest country, is now facing a significant increase in homicide rates. Since 2016, the rates of homicide have risen by 500%, surpassing that of Mexico and Colombia. This unfortunate turn of events has caused Ecuador to become the least safe country in the region. This descent into violence stems from a complex interplay of factors. Still, a central role is played by Ecuador's evolving position in the global cocaine trade, tied to the evolution of drug trafficking groups. The Ecuadorian government attributes the rise in violence to a growth in the sophistication of these non-state armed actors. The International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports raise a crucial point: Ecuador's weak institutions leave it vulnerable to transnational organized crime. Recent news articles paint a disturbing picture of this vulnerability – police corruption and direct involvement in trafficking activities have become alarmingly common.

For example, in 2014, a high-ranking police officer, previously leading Interpol in Ecuador, was implicated in a drug trafficking operation alongside three other officers. These are not isolated incidents. Multiple cases detail police officers arrested for attempting drug shipments or facilitating cocaine passage through airports for a hefty price. Most recently, three Ecuadorian police officers transporting drugs in a patrol vehicle were apprehended, leading to a deadly firefight.

Corruption, especially when it allies with drug trafficking gangs, poses a severe threat to both the administration and police force. Criminals infiltrate the state apparatus to manipulate law enforcement in their favor. Research confirms this intricate connection between criminal entities and state institutions in Ecuador. For this, my research will start with the assumption that the non-state armed actors of drug trafficking gangs in Ecuador have infiltrated government branches, which is proved by instances where they have used violence to shape political outcomes. The assassination of the presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio 10 days before the elections proves a striking point to this claim.

I have chosen to compare Ecuador with Mexico and Colombia, and this choice is not accidental. These nations share a common and concerning characteristic with Ecuador: they have a long history of fighting against powerful non-state armed actors who are heavily involved in drug trafficking.

Mexico has been plagued by cartels such as Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation for years. These groups have become notorious for their violent tendencies and their influence, which often leads to clashes with both each other and the government. The country's weak institutions and long-standing history of corruption have made it a breeding ground for such organizations.

Similarly, Colombia has struggled with powerful groups like FARC and the Medellin Cartel for decades. While the situation has improved in recent years, the legacy of violence and drug trafficking continues to cast a long shadow over the country.

The motivations of non-state armed actors in all three countries share a common thread: profiting from the drug trade. They use violence to control territory, eliminate rivals, and intimidate local populations. These groups often collaborate or compete with each other, blurring geographical boundaries. For instance, Colombian drug cartels have established a foothold in Ecuador, contributing to the rise in violence and instability. This highlights the interconnectedness of the drug trade across the region.

The rise of these non-state armed actors has significantly contributed to the surge in crime rates across all three countries. Their activities destabilize governments, erode public trust, and hinder economic development. The decline in counter-narcotics efforts and the perceived lack of threat have allowed criminal organizations to operate with near impunity in Ecuador, mirroring the challenges faced by Mexico and Colombia. This environment fostered connections between these groups and political circles. Overcrowded prisons, violent riots, and the ongoing armed conflict against drug gangs all point to a nation grappling with a deeply entrenched problem.

High-profile investigations in Ecuador like "El Gran Padrino" exposed the intricate links between the government and organized crime, leading to the removal of a previous president. The ongoing "metastasis" case further highlights the pervasiveness of corruption, uncovering a network of judges, prosecutors, prison officials, and police officers collaborating with criminal organizations. As mentioned before, the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio just days before the election stands as a stark reminder of the pervasive influence of criminal networks operating at the highest levels of government.

Ecuador's predicament underscores the complex interplay between historical legacies, political decisions, and systemic weaknesses within its institutions. As the nation grapples with the pervasive influence of organized crime, dismantling these deeply entrenched networks and restoring the integrity of state institutions are the critical challenges that lie ahead. Learning from the experiences of Mexico and Colombia will be crucial in crafting effective solutions.


In my research, I'm taking a mixed-method approach, combining both qualitative and quantitative data. I'll be conducting interviews with key figures in Ecuador, like academics and policymakers, to get their in-depth perspectives. To understand how non-state armed actors operate on the ground, I'll also be analyzing specific cases of crime escalation. This will involve collecting data from news articles, academic journals, and even government reports. To add a quantitative dimension, I'm building a database that tracks events attributed to these actors across municipalities in Ecuador from 2016 to the present. This will require developing a clear data collection protocol and systematically gathering information categorized by factors like severity, location, and the actors involved.


Week 1 (June 17th - 23rd):

  • Focus: Defining Variables
  • Activities:
    • Identify key variables for qualitative and quantitative analysis. (e.g., types of violence, political influence indicators)
    • Start selecting sources that will be useful at the literature review stage.
  • Select specific case studies of crime escalation in Ecuador for in-depth analysis.

Week 2 (June 24th - 30th):

  • Focus: Literature Review and Data Collection - Stage 1
  • Activities:
    • Conduct a comprehensive literature review on the historical evolution of non-state armed actors in Colombia, Mexico, and Ecuador (2016-present) with focus on:
      • Incidents of violence
      • Political influence
      • Drug market changes
      • Policy responses
    • Utilize library resources (University of Toronto) and identify potential additional sources from a broader Latin American investigation.
      • Other resources include the books “El Gran Padrino” and “El Infierno: Drugs, Gangs, Riots and Murder: My time inside Ecuador’s toughest prisons.” 
    • Start collecting data for the qualitative methods:
      • Case study analysis: gather information on chosen cases through news articles, academic journals, and government reports.
    • Interviews: schedule interviews with key stakeholders in Ecuador.

Week 3 (July 1st - 7th):

  • Focus: Data Collection - Stage 2 (Database Construction Begins)
  • Activities:
    • Begin building the municipality-level database of events attributed to non-state armed actors in Ecuador (2016-present).
    • Develop a data collection protocol for systematically gathering information from newspapers and official criminal records.
    • Start collecting data for the database, focusing on events categorized by:
      • Severity
      • Location
      • Actors involved

Week 4 (July 8th - 14th):

  • Focus: Continued Data Collection and Analysis - Stage 1 & 2
  • Activities:
    • Continue literature review and data collection for Stage 1.
    • Analyze case studies using information gathered in Week 2.
    • Conduct interviews with key stakeholders (remotely or in-person if possible).
    • Refine data collection protocol for the municipality-level database based on initial findings.
    • Continue collecting data for the database.

Week 5 (July 15th - 21st):

  • Focus: Travel and In-Person Data Collection (Stage 3)
  • Activities:
    • Travel to Quito, Ecuador
    • Conduct in-person interviews with key stakeholders (Academic experts)
      • Interviews will be done in Spanish and will be transcribed and translated to English.
      • When publishing, the names of the interviewees’ will not be mentioned, only their charges to accrue to their subject matter expertise to avoid any security concerns post-publication.
    • Gather additional data from relevant government documents and local news sources.

Week 6 (July 22nd - 28th):

  • Focus: Data Analysis and Project Completion
  • Activities:
    • Analyze interview data and government documents from Week 5.
    • Conduct a comparative analysis of strategies used by Colombia, Mexico, and other relevant countries.
      • Analyze trends in violence, political stability, and infiltration points.
      • Identify successful strategies and potential policy recommendations for Ecuador.
    • Finalize data entry and analysis for the municipality-level database.
    • Start drafting the final research project report, incorporating qualitative and quantitative findings.
    • Develop policy recommendations based on research insights.

Potential Impact

The research anticipates influencing policy formulation by providing actionable insights for mitigating the influence of organized crime on political institutions in Ecuador. Furthermore, the study aims to contribute valuable knowledge to academic fields related to criminology, political science, and international relations. Ultimately, the research seeks to foster safer and more resilient communities in Ecuador and contribute to broader discussions on global security challenges.


"Colombia." Insight Crime, https://insightcrime.org/colombia-organized-crime-news/colombia/.

"Ecuador Police-Narco Links Point to Trouble Ahead." Insight Crime, https://insightcrime.org/news/brief/ecuador-police-narco-links-point-to-trouble-ahead/.

"Ecuador Profile." Insight Crime, https://insightcrime.org/ecuador-organized-crime-news/ecuador-profile/.

Human Rights Watch. "Ecuador." World Report 2024, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2024/country-chapters/ecuador#:~:text=Ecuador's%20homicide%20rate%20surged%20from,countries%2C%20alongside%20Venezuela%20and%20Honduras.

Investigaciones La Posta. https://investigacioneslaposta.com/.

"Metastasis Case Exposes Ecuador's Corruption Cancer." Insight Crime, 20 May 2022, https://insightcrime.org/news/metastasis-case-exposes-ecuadors-corruption-cancer/.

"Mexico." Insight Crime, https://insightcrime.org/mexico-organized-crime-news/mexico/.

RFI. "Un francés en el infierno de una prisión ecuatoriana." 4 May 2011, https://www.rfi.fr/es/americas/20110504-un-frances-en-el-infierno-de-una-prision-ecuatoriana.

The New York Times. "Ecuador Struggles to Contain Drug Gangs as Unrest Grows." 13 Jan. 2024, https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/13/world/americas/ecuador-drug-gangs-unrest.html.

The Washington Post. "Ecuador's Drug War: The Fight Against Noboa's Cocaine Gangs." https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2024/ecuador-noboa-bandas-guerra-cocaina/?itid=lk_readmore_enhanced-template_translation.

"4 Reasons Why Ecuador Is in a Security Crisis." Insight Crime, https://insightcrime.org/news/4-reasons-why-ecuador-is-in-a-security-crisis/.

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Go to the profile of Princess Agina
20 days ago

Great post, Cecilia! A very fascinating and timely study. I’m particularly interested in the database you’re creating at the municipal level – it sounds like it will be a valuable resource. It has the potential to make such a significant impact on policy and security in Ecuador and beyond. Best of luck with your research... looking forward to reading about it further!