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Aid agencies struggle to adapt to Ecuador’s new (violent) normal

‘We have had to start using operational tools employed in much more volatile contexts, such as Syria or Lebanon.’ 

Aerial photo Guayaquil, early March 2024. Paula Dupraz-Dobias/TNH
Ecuador's drastic slide into violence is driving a complex humanitarian crisis that is forcing many Ecuadorians to leave. Guayaquil, the country's most populous city, has been the worst hit by the violence so far.

Four months have passed since an unprecedented outbreak of violence in Ecuador led President Daniel Noboa to declare a state of emergency and impose a nightly curfew, but security has continued to deteriorate, driving a complex humanitarian crisis that aid organisations are struggling to adapt to.

Home to one of the largest refugee populations in South America, Ecuador was for decades seen as a regional haven – a country where international aid groups had a presence but mostly just to assist migrants and those seeking asylum. This is far from the reality today. Its slide into violence has been so drastic that the International Rescue Committee (IRC) included it on its annual list of worsening humanitarian crises. 

The ongoing state of emergency was put in place in early January, after the leader of one of the main criminal organisations escaped from his prison cell. The government response prompted a spate of small bomb attacks and kidnappings, with gang members also storming a television studio, hospitals, and universities in the country’s largest city of Guayaquil. Prison inmates around the country took their guards captive.

“When COVID began, we wanted the pandemic to be over, but then an even worse pandemic of violence came.”

Despite what he has called his “war” on drug gangs, which has included sending in the military to take over the running of the lawless prisons, Noboa hasn’t managed to prevent the security crisis from escalating.

Homicides soared into April, with 80 murders recorded during three days over Easter.

The nightly curfew ended days later, but on 21 April Ecuadorians overwhelmingly voted in favour of hardline security measures that expanded police and military power to tackle organised crime. This came despite human rights concerns, including growing allegations of torture and a lack of food in prisons.

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the country, driving its health system to collapse. With over half of Ecuador’s population of 18 million informally employed, lockdowns left many families with limited resources, while weak social services and long suspensions of in-class schooling made vulnerable youth easier prey for recruitment by gangs.

“When COVID began, we wanted the pandemic to be over, but then an even worse pandemic of violence came,” Roberto Paguay, an informal taxi driver in Guayaquil, told The New Humanitarian. “Every day, [gangs] are killing people and stealing, and there are no opportunities here,” he said. “Ecuador was always a country of peace, but now it's one of the most violent in South America.” 

The roots of the decline

In recent years, the economic, political, and social conditions in Ecuador have provided fertile ground for the rise in violent crimes.

In placing Ecuador on its emergency watchlist for the first time, the IRC warned that “combined with persistent economic pressures since the COVID-19 pandemic, violence is likely to erode livelihoods and drive increasing rates of poverty and needs”. 

The pandemic also allowed local gangs to strengthen their ties with transnational criminal organisations from Mexico, Albania, and Colombia as they sought to control coveted drug shipment routes in the country, which is located between the world’s largest cocaine producers: Colombia and Peru. 

The assassination, in August 2023, of Fernando Villavicencio, a journalist and leading presidential candidate who had investigated corruption and gang violence, came as a clear sign of the gangs tightening their grip on the country.  

A massive corruption investigation by the attorney general’s office, known as Caso Metástasis, exposed deep links between the authorities and the drug gangs.

By the end of 2023, the homicide rate reached 47.2 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Ecuadorian Observatory of Organised Crime (OECO) – a near-66% increase compared to the previous year – turning Ecuador into the most violent country in Latin America

The pressure to leave

Faced with a mounting economic and security crisis, many Ecuadorians have already decided enough is enough. Since last year, they represent the second most common nationality crossing the dangerous Darién Gap en route to the United States, after Venezuelans, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The government has also reported a new record for the number of Ecuadorians leaving the country. 


Paguay, the taxi driver, is one of the many Ecuadorians thinking about migrating. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, his daily earnings have dropped from roughly $30 a day to just $10 on the worst days.

The 51-year-old now has to avoid taking clients to certain neighbourhoods, where he would have to pay gangs $5 or $10 of extortion money to let him in and out.

Paguay’s wife has a small shop selling sodas and pet food, which has so far managed to dodge the gang threats, but he said extortion has become a common problem for business owners: “If they don’t pay, [the gangs] may give you two or three goes before they leave bombs at your doorstep or even kill you.”

The monthly extortion payments, known as vacunas (vaccines), vary from around $1,000 up to $10,000 depending on the size of the business, he explained.

“It saddens me that I will have to leave the country where I was born and grew up,” Paguay said. “But there’s a need to make a bit of money for my old age.” 

Not a safe haven any more

While many Ecuadorians are leaving, the flux of international migrants coming in and going out of the country continues. For many of them, Ecuador is a transit country, but at least 475,000 Venezuelans reside here, as do roughly 200,000 Colombians, many of whom have already fled violence in Colombia.

Their situation has also become more challenging as Ecuador no longer has the ability to provide safe and sustainable conditions for refugees and migrants, according to Bélgica Álvarez, the IRC’s country director.

Verónica Supliguicha Cárdenas, founder of Alas de Colibrí, a local aid group focused on migrants and survivors of gender-based violence and trafficking, told The New Humanitarian that the growing insecurity is cutting those in need off from assistance.

This is a map of South America. It is zoomed in to Ecuador. We also see Colombia and Peru bordering.

She explained how many are out on the streets as they don’t have any lodgings, viewed suspiciously and already stigmatised as foreigners. “[They] feel removed from institutions and organisations, where they may fear being identified or viewed as responsible for something that could be considered illegal,” she said.

Supliguicha Cárdenas also flagged an emerging and overlooked crisis on the border with Colombia, noting that the needs of Colombians entering Ecuador after fleeing violence back home had risen by 150% between August 2023 and March of this year. They often arrive with “severe mental health issues, fear – terrorised”, she said. 

Transiting migrants and Ecuadorians fleeing coastal regions due to insecurity and natural disasters have also added to the cross-border traffic, despite Peru and Colombia recently militarising their frontiers to stop drugs and criminals getting through. 

Climate crisis adds another layer

The El Niño weather phenomenon has multiplied needs in a different way, adding to the complexity of the response.

In the provinces of Manabí, Los Ríos, and Guayas, where Guayaquil is located, some 120,000 people and almost 30,000 houses were affected by flooding in early March.

Dengue has also been on the rise in the coastal regions, as a new variant has emerged, claiming at least 27 lives and infecting over 23,000 people during the first four months of the year alone.

“[With the flooding], the sewage system hasn’t worked well, leading to health issues. If you can’t work, your livelihood is affected, making it a ripe situation for organised crime groups,” said Supliguicha Cárdenas.

El Niño has also led to severe droughts in Andean regions, reducing water reservoir levels where hydroelectric power is generated, and prompting an energy emergency. 

All this means that providing humanitarian assistance has become complex. Amid myriad global crises, aid groups told The New Humanitarian that Latin America is not seen as a priority and they are having to do more with less.

Federico Agusti, UNHCR’s representative in Ecuador, said little is even known about the number of internally displaced, explaining that the organisation recently launched a study to ascertain the scale of the displaced population and assess their needs.

“We try to attract greater attention to crises in the Americas, where approximately 20% of global displacement is taking place. The critical situation in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Colombia and here, amongst others, need to be recognised,” Agusti said. “If we don’t invest in integration, we will see more people leave their countries and move north.”

A recent report by Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, warned of the “dire” consequences Ecuador’s security crisis is having on children, after education again shifted online, making young people more vulnerable to sexual violence. UNICEF has reported soaring rates of homicide and rising mental health issues among Ecuadorian children.

“We have to act with speed,” Supliguicha Cárdenas told an online panel in February that stressed the need to prepare for disasters and to adjust to Ecuador’s new normal of greater violence. “We want to create situations where communities are resilient,” she said.

Aid workers put on a war footing

The insecurity on the ground is affecting humanitarians too. This year, several Alas de Colibrí workers have been violently attacked, and one employee was kidnapped.

Jorge Arteaga, national relief coordinator for the Ecuadorian Red Cross, said their work now includes communicating clearly on social media what their mandate is, and emphasising that the Red Cross is not a state entity but a purely humanitarian and neutral organisation.

Álvarez, meanwhile, explained how the IRC and others have adapted to the more dangerous operating environment by strengthening their cooperation with partners that are known and accepted by local communities.

The group is also making an extra effort to be present in the community to better understand the local dynamics, such as who is in control of each area and how the gangs operate. The aim is that this will help them provide better aid, such as healthcare, disaster educational programmes, safe spaces for children, and gender-based violence prevention.

“Over the past six months, we have had to start using operational tools employed in much more volatile contexts, such as Syria or Lebanon, to identify small changes in everyday life that could indicate whether there may be a new security incident,” Álvarez said, adding that psychosocial support to staff in the field has become essential.

“This is a very new crisis for Ecuador,” she said. “It is difficult to compare an aid worker who has been working for 10 years in [the conflict regions of] Arauca or Cauca in Colombia, or in any Central American city, to an Ecuadorian who until recently was living on an island of peace concerned about the rainy season and not much more.”

Edited by Daniela Mohor.

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