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Why recent violence in Ecuador is out of the norm

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ecuador has long seemed a peaceful country in South America, safe from drug cartels and gang violence - until this week. A group of gunmen took over a TV station in Guayaquil on Tuesday and held staff hostage during a live broadcast. The gunmen were eventually detained by security forces. Nobody was killed at the TV station, but it was just one of a series of allegedly coordinated attacks that rocked Ecuador over 24 hours. More than 30 car bombs went off across the country. Riots broke out in several prisons. At least 11 people have been killed this week. Ecuador's president, Daniel Noboa, declared a state of emergency and said, we are in a state of war. Sebastian Hurtado is founder and president of the political risk consultancy group Profitas that's based in Quito. He joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

SEBASTIAN HURTADO: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What do you think sparked the violence this week?

HURTADO: You know, prisons in Ecuador for some years now basically serve as headquarters for criminal organizations. And the government was planning on intervening in some of these prisons and moving some criminal leaders to different prisons. Ahead of that, a major criminal leader managed to escape. So basically, President Noboa reacted to the situation by first declaring a state of emergency and, after that, declaring, which is a first, declaration of war against criminal organizations and their leaders. And basically, what we saw this week was the reaction from these criminal organizations against the actions of the state.

SIMON: As we mentioned, Mr. Hurtado, Ecuador had seemed for so many years a peaceful and successful society. There have been issues going on underneath that appearance over the years?

HURTADO: Things started changing probably five years back, where we started to see some significant changes in the drug trade and in the drug trade business. You know, hardly any cocaine is produced in Ecuador. Most of the cocaine that goes through Ecuador and gets exported to the United States and Europe and Asia comes from either Colombia or Peru, and mostly Colombia. Around 2016, Colombian guerrillas in the south of Colombia got demobilized, and that created a vacuum of leadership in the drug trade. And new criminal organizations took over and started exploring new ways of moving drugs around the region. And Ecuador provided, like, an excellent base to move drugs and export them for many reasons - one being Ecuador is a fully dollarized economy. So that makes using the U.S. dollar easier and laundering U.S. dollar easier. And the second thing is, you know, Ecuador has very weak security and state institutions.

SIMON: How supportive are Ecuadorians of President Noboa's declaration of a state of emergency, or, as he said, we're at war now, and his attempted reform of the prison system?

HURTADO: This has become a major political wing for President Noboa right now. You know, crime was the main concern of Ecuadorians - has been the main concern for Ecuadorians for a number of years now. And we - all have been - have become very frustrated with the past efforts from previous governments that haven't obtained results. So the fact that President Noboa took this bold step has been well received by many, not only in the general public, but also even from opposition groups in Congress.

SIMON: But does the threat of more violence continue? And what effect does that have on events?

HURTADO: We all have - I mean - or some of us have some concerns about whether there's a clear security strategy behind these recent actions from the government. And we are all hoping that this is not just an initiative that throws just brute force to the problem.

SIMON: Does the United States have a role to play in support of Ecuador at this point, or would that be destructive?

HURTADO: No. Definitely the support from the international community, from neighboring countries and especially from the United States will be crucial. And I understand the Ecuadorian government is planning to announce a support package from the United States government, and it will include logistics support, intelligence support, some experts on the ground. But I think that the support from the United States, it's going to be key.

SIMON: Sebastian Hurtado is founder and president of the political risk consultancy group Profitas. Thanks so much for being with us.

HURTADO: Well, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.