Ecuador Is A Warning For A Post-Chavista Venezuela

Ecuador's organized crime crisis could be a warning for a post-Chavista Venezuela, when democracy will try to reassert itself in institutions and break the coexistence Chavismo fostered with criminal non-state actors.

On Tuesday, following the escape from prison of Ecuador’s most dangerous criminal, hooded armed men stormed a television studio in Guayaquil and pointed their weapons at those present – live. Thousands of spectators saw how irregular armed groups operate, challenging the formal structure of the State. Simultaneously, other criminals took over the local university and president Daniel Noboa declared a 60-day state of internal armed conflict.

But this article is not about that country. This article is about Venezuela: because the violence that erupted 2,500km from Caracas could bring us closer to scenarios that we will probably have to face the day we –finally— restore democracy.

Watching the scenes unfold, stunned, I wonder: What happened? When did the Ecuadorian State lose its coercive capabilities? Who and how was this degradation of the democratic system allowed? 

To understand what is happening in Ecuador –and how it can relate to Venezuela’s future– we have to go back to 2007, when Rafael Correa began his presidency. Correa was President for ten years and throughout that period, he weakened Ecuador’s capacity to confront transnational crime. In words of Juan Carlos Holguín, former Foreign Minister of Ecuador during the Guillermo Lasso presidency: “through that period, these groups grew stronger, while the Armed Forces, the Police, the intelligence structure, and almost all of the country’s institutions were deliberately weakened. The weapons capabilities of criminal structures in Ecuador are almost seven times greater than those of the State.”

Correa not only stopped collaborating with the DEA and closed the U.S. military base in Manta, but he dismantled an elite anti-narcotics police unit he distrusted. Furthermore, during those years, the port of Guayaquil became one of the largest cocaine distribution hubs in the Americas. Intelligence data reveals that merchandise coming from Colombia, Peru and Mexico is received there and then shipped to the United States and Europe. Similarly, the presence of Colombian guerrilla group FARC grew in Ecuador during this period: even leading to a diplomatic crisis with Colombia after Álvaro Uribe’s government killed FARC leader ‘Raúl Reyes’ in a basecamp in northern Ecuador. All of this illustrates the freehand drug trafficking received during Correa´s government.

As we have seen in other cases of state degradation, the government’s relationship with irregular armed groups may be motivated by the distrust that the Executive has in the National Armed Forces. This happens when the government identifies military institutional strongholds that may be critical to its authoritarian deployment and needs an alternative and faithful source of political-territorial control. At that moment, the Correa government found an alternative support in organized crime and irregular groups: two allies of strategic relevance for its authoritarian purposes. In fact, by 2011, the DEA was calling Ecuador “the United Nations of organized crime.” 

Furthermore, this association –government, drug traffickers and criminal groups– can also be highly productive and feed the demands of all those involved in the process. This is how autocracy consolidates power in exchange for conceding the coercive capabilities of the State to organized crime and its allies.

Another question arises: When and why does violence begin? Certainly, the homicide rates under Correa´s administration were lower than those achieved during Lenín Moreno, Guillermo Lasso and Daniel Noboa governments. This time, the answer is simple: violence breaks out when the government takes measures to reestablish its control, as when Moreno sought to purge Corralistas like the Minister of Justice. Ending the relationship between the Ecuadorian State and organized crime has had a high cost. In Ecuador, democracy tried to reassert itself in a weak, degraded, and corrupt state… and now it runs the risk of shipwreck.

Ecuador, the mirror; Venezuela, the reflection

Associations are uncomfortable. Surely, at this moment, some wise reader has frowned on more than one time. That’s the risk of writing a short article on such a complex topic; there will necessarily be simplifications. Nevertheless, I will venture to describe the current situation of the Venezuelan State.

The Fragile States index published by The Fund for Peace places Venezuela in a “state of alert.” Its situation is unique in the region. It occupies the 29th position and ranking, just after the Democratic Republic of Congo. While fear hasn’t allowed a widespread conversation on the relationship between the Chavista-Madurista regime and organized crime –including illegal mining and drug trafficking– there is valuable information that certifies those ties.  

On November 10th 2015, for example, three nephews of Nicolás Maduro’s wife Cilia Flores were arrested for trying to traffic 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S.. Similarly, both leaked documents from Colombia’s Prosecutor’s Office and Insight Crime investigations mention the Cartel of the Suns, led by members of the Venezuelan government and the National Armed Force that traffic cocaine, gold, coltan and other minerals. Similarly, some town halls of border municipalities in our country are taken over by Colombian guerrillas, like the dissident FARC and ELN. 

This degradation of the Venezuelan State did not happen overnight. It was a gradual transformation led by Hugo Chávez Frías and consolidated by Maduro. 

The formal relationship between the Venezuelan State, organized crime and irregular forces –mainly FARC and ELN– began when Chávez faced the resistance of some members of the National Armed Forces, who were against his authoritarian ways. April 11, 2002 was a turning point. After the military coup, Chávez set out to purge the military forces and, to do so, he weakened its institutions, politicized the Armed Force and allied his government with irregular groups. Nowadays, disidents from the military suffer the worst face of repression. In fact, most political prisoners in Venezuela are not civilians.

The relationship with organized crime has also helped satisfy the financial demands of those who are part of the Chavista-Madurista system, especially after the collapse of the oil industry. According to a recent study by Transparency and Ecoanalítica, illicit trades represented almost 16% of Venezuela’s GDP in 2022. 

The Venezuelan State is fragile. Unable to fulfill its welfare duties and with its coercive capabilities reduced, Venezuela now faces a complex humanitarian crisis and resorts to repression.  

Venezuela 2025

Now, let’s jump in time to December 2024. Let´s imagine that the Venezuelan opposition wins the presidential elections and democracy is reestablished. How will it manage the current degradation of the Venezuelan State? How will it rebuild it? What can we learn from the Ecuadorian case? Once again: there are no simple answers. As post-Pinochet Chilean president Patricio Aylwin said: “we will not have the transition we dream of, but rather the one we can”. 

I will share five ideas that can be useful.

First, we need to recognize and explore the problem. I have been in political and academic discussions, inside and outside the country, where some people refute the relationship between the Venezuelan State and organized crime. Generally, they argue the absence of reliable data. But, logically, this is a shady issue: They are criminals who operate from an authoritarian regime and there is no such thing as the National Institute of Crime Statistics! Therefore, I consider that the first step is to recognize the problem and provide tools to understand its dynamics.

Secondly, we need to incorporate the criminal issue into the model of political change. I am concerned about some approaches on political change that reduce the debate to a possible negotiation and its incentives. This is not a moral concern. This is a practical problem. Regimes in the 21st century have closer relations with organized crime and that quality proposes new terms in an eventual negotiation between the actors. This is a complex process that will require psychological, cultural and technical analysis. It seems that we must begin by scrutinizing the souls of this “new tyrant” who is two things at the same time: dictator and leader of an international organized crime organization.

Third, we must anticipate tensions. Our democratization journey will necessarily have as a priority the reconstruction of the State, especially the capacities that correspond to territorial control and the monopoly of violence. It is predictable to warn that this task, as we are seeing in Ecuador, will cause tensions and violence. Without a doubt, dismantling criminal networks and the reestablishment of state duties will generate situations that will demand force. To do this, it will be necessary to promote social and political consensus that validates the actions of the State and allows progress within the framework of what is established in the Constitution.

Fourth, we must avoid the authoritarian temptation. The Ecuadorian case teaches that the reconstruction of the State can bring violence. This tension can affect the democratic commitment of the population. Challenged by chaos, the country could question the new order and bet on political actors who promise security “at all costs.” Political proposals that consider human rights as dispensable. During the 1990s, for example, Chávez embodied the need for an “iron fist” demanded by chunks of the population following a rise of violence. When these candidates are popular, they come to power and stay there until further notice. In this way, democracy is shipwrecked and a new authoritarian episode begins.

Fifth, we must have a long-term vision. The degradation of the State has devastating consequences in our lives. It is a leap back to barbarism that demands an immediate return to civility. For this reason, I dare to say that the initial measures to reestablish the capabilities will be a small step in the long path of transformation that the country will demand. 

Unfortunately, our society has been subjected for decades to cultural patterns that leverage the worst of our traditions and have given life to Chavismo’s “new man”:  wounded; grown up in a hostile context. He has traumas, fears, pains. Therefore, if we don’t want Amazonas lost to guerrilla groups and gangs taking over the Venevisión studios or the Andrés Bello Catholic University, the reconstruction of the State must include public policies aimed at reconstructing our identity and our memory. 

Chavismo-Madurismo has left us deep wounds that must heal until we create scars that lovingly remind us of what must never happen again. It will take time and patience. Maybe, our whole life.