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What’s Behind Ecuador’s Rising Murder Rate?

Ecuador’s declining homicide rate had been a success story. Now the country is facing a state of emergency.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Ecuador's President Guillermo Lasso speaks next to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Ecuador's President Guillermo Lasso speaks next to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a meeting in Quito on Oct. 19. SANTIAGO ARCOS/POOL / AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Ecuador tackles rising violent crime, regional powers meet on Afghanistan, and the U.N. Security Council discusses North Korea’s latest missile test.

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Ecuador’s Rise in Crime

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Ecuador tackles rising violent crime, regional powers meet on Afghanistan, and the U.N. Security Council discusses North Korea’s latest missile test.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Ecuador’s Rise in Crime

Looking at crime statistics over the past decade, Ecuador was a success story. Its homicide rate plummeted year after year, settling at a rate closer to those seen in Europe rather than in South America.

In 2021, that’s all changed. The more than 1,800 murders already recorded in 2021 are likely to return Ecuador to rates last seen in 2012.

Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso has sought to stop the surge by instituting a 60-day state of emergency, a move that sends the military out to patrol Ecuador’s streets and restricts movement.

Although Lasso has connected the rise in crime to drug trafficking, Daniel Pontón, a security expert based in the capital, Quito, isn’t convinced. “The penetration of drug trafficking does not necessarily have to be accompanied by violence,” Pontón told Foreign Policy. “Colombia, for example, has been decreasing its level of homicides, but drug trafficking has grown in the last decade.”

Pontón, who teaches at the National Institute of Higher Studies of Ecuador, places the majority of blame on policies to transform the state security system that began in 2018. These included the elimination of the justice ministry as well as rounds of budget cuts and a hollowing out of state bureaucracies.

An epidemic of violence in the country’s prisons has also pushed annual homicide numbers way up; 119 inmates were killed in a single day in a gang battle in late September. It follows other inter-gang clashes in the country’s prisons, where gun violence has become a scourge. Twenty-two people were killed in a riot in July, while 79 inmates were killed in February. Overall, prison deaths have increased from 3.7 percent of total homicides in 2020 to 12.5 percent in 2021, according to figures compiled by Pontón.

Lasso’s state of emergency began just as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the country for a two-day visit, a sequence of events that is likely more than a coincidence. Blinken praised Lasso for his commitment to fighting corruption on Tuesday and said he was convinced the president would adhere to democratic principles during the emergency period. Blinken delivers a speech in Quito today before heading across the border to Colombia.

Only four months into the job, Lasso must do more on a fundamental level, Claudia Donoso, an expert in Ecuadorian politics and security at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, told Foreign Policy: “The problem that I always see is that governments of any administration, when they talk about drugs, they think that it’s a security problem. They don’t think there is a public health concern or a social problem.”

The tendency to securitize the debate and prove to the international community that Ecuador is serious about preventing violent crime often stops leaders from pursuing longer-term goals, Donoso said. “There are a lot of reforms that need to be done, not only more army and police, but in creating the conditions that avoid people getting involved in these criminal activities in the first place.”

What We’re Following Today

Afghanistan meeting. Representatives from Russia, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Iran, and India gather in Moscow today to discuss Afghanistan’s transition following the Taliban takeover in August. Afghanistan’s acting Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanaf will lead a Taliban delegation at the meeting.

On Tuesday, Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani officials all said they would provide aid to Afghanistan, but they stopped short of offering full recognition to the Taliban-led government. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his government was holding off on recognition discussions with the Taliban, adding that Russia is “prodding them to fulfill the promises they made when they came to power.”

In Washington, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Wally Adeyemo said the Biden administration had no plans to unfreeze the more than $9 billion in Afghan central bank reserves currently held outside the country.

North Korea’s missile. The United Nations Security Council will hold emergency talks today following the latest North Korean missile test, officially confirmed by Pyongyang early Wednesday. North Korean state media said a “new type” of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) was tested on Tuesday, equipped with “lots of advanced control guidance technologies.” The test comes soon after South Korea demonstrated its own capabilities in its first successful SLBM test, adding to the handful of nations that have mastered the technology.

Keep an Eye On 

Brazil’s coronavirus inquiry. Brazilian Sen. Renan Calheiros, the leader of a congressional investigation into Brazil’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, has recommended the indictment of President Jair Bolsonaro on 11 charges, including homicide and genocide against Brazil’s Indigenous community. The charges are unlikely to stick, however, since they must be must first be approved by a Senate panel and then brought by a pro-Bolsonaro prosecutor. On Tuesday, Bolsonaro dismissed the inquiry as a “joke.”

Haiti’s crime wave. The Haitian gang responsible for kidnapping 17 missionaries from a U.S. Christian aid organization have demanded a $17 million ransom, Haiti’s Justice Minister Liszt Quitel said on Tuesday, adding that negotiations with the gang could take weeks. The recent spike in crime led to a general strike in the capital, Port-au-Prince, earlier this week.

Odds and Ends

An Australian town has been hit with the largest hailstones ever seen in the country, with ice balls measuring more than 6 inches in diameter raining down on the town of Yalboroo in Australia’s north on Wednesday. “The atmosphere was extremely unstable, which allowed hail to continue growing before gravity forced it to the ground,” the Australian Bureau of Meteorology explained on Twitter. Although the grapefruit-size stones in Australia are a national record, the world’s largest hailstone was recorded in Vivian, South Dakota, in 2010 at a diameter of 8 inches.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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