By W.T. Whitney Jr.

February 8, 2024


Joined by other U.S. officials, Laura Richardson, commander of the U.S. Army’s Southern Command, was in Ecuador from January 22 to 25. She was conferring with President Daniel Noboa—recently elected and very wealthy—and other government leaders about U.S. military assistance.

Richardson mentioned to reporters an “investment portfolio…worth $93.4 million, including not only military equipment…[but also] humanitarian assistance and disaster response, [and] professional military education.”

Prompting the visit was crisis in Ecuador, manifesting as widespread crime complete with prison riots, prison escapes, and assassinations of political figures. Ecuador’s homicide rate of 5.8 in 2017 skyrocketed to 43 murders per 100,000 persons by 2023.

In the “grip of drug gangs,” Ecuador receives cocaine and other illicit drugs produced and processed in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and elsewhere. Narco-traffickers transfer illegal drugs from Guayaquil and Esmeraldas in Ecuador to U.S. and European consumers. There is now less action along the cartels’ former routes through Central America and the Caribbean.

Ecuador’s government recently decreed a state of “internal armed conflict,” which puts the Army in charge of domestic security. From 2017 to 2023, governments under Presidents Lenin Moreno and Guillermo Lasso encouraged privatizations, fiscal austerity, and shrinkage of state services. Now, resources for dealing with the powerful, region-wide drug cartels operating in the country are lacking. That’s the pretext for U.S. military intervention.

The U.S. government instituted its war on drug-trafficking in Latin America and the Caribbean during the Nixon administration. It peaked with Plan Colombia, from 1999 until 2015, and the Merida Initiative, applied to Mexico from 2007 until 2021. The U.S. media and public officials characterize drug-cartel operatives as terrorists. Over the course of four decades, U.S. drug-war spending has totaled $1 trillion.

Describing Ecuador’s situation, analyst Pablo Dávalos sees “convergence among political power, organized crime, and narcotrafficking to exploit use of the dollar as Ecuador’s national currency to enable money laundering.” Organized crime “controls vast areas,” and Ecuadorians “refusing to pay extorsions are being systematically eliminated.”

Eloy Osvaldo Proaño of the Latin American Center of Strategic Analysis points out that the “neoliberal recipe reduces institutional presence, which weakens control of borders and facilitates penetration of criminal gangs.” Now, he adds, the “22 organizations declared [by President Noboa] to be ‘terrorist groups’…have a capacity of maneuver and omnipresence enabling them to control territories and prisons, even to penetrate institutions [of the state].”

Osvaldo Proaño claims also that Noboa is developing “one part of a regional plan of para-militarization of territories to sow terror, disarticulate the social fabric and keep populations subdued, while simultaneously encouraging the re-structure of millionaire business deals.”

Ecuador now is the region’s leading recipient of U.S. military assistance, with more on the way. According to Ecuador’s defense minister, the U.S. government will be “investing” $3.1 billion in military assistance to Ecuador over seven years.

The U.S. Congress approved the United States-Ecuador Partnership Act in December 2022. A memorandum of understanding signed in Washington in July 2023 signaled U.S. intent to strengthen Ecuador’s military and combat illicit drugs. The two countries a month later agreed on a U.S. role in improving the capabilities of Ecuador’s military, police, and judiciary.

In Washington, on Sept. 28, 2023, President Lasso signed an agreement whereby U.S. troops and naval personnel would deploy in Ecuador. A week later, Ecuador’s foreign minister and the U.S. ambassador arrived at a status of forces agreement on the privileges, immunities, and guarantees for U.S. military personnel.

Alluding to sad regional experience, Colombian President Gustavo Petro reminded Gen. Richardson in Sept. 2022 of “the failure of [U.S.] anti-drug policies and the need “for alternatives other than something leading to the deaths of a million more Latin Americans.”

Other critics refer to the steady growth of narco-trafficking even as the U.S. drug war took hold in Latin America. They know that that the United States is the world’s top consumer of illicit drugs, and critique U.S. emphasis on drug war abroad rather than treatment and prevention programs at home.

They see militarization in the various countries as undermining social justice and democratic processes, and more so in the context of U.S.-backed drug war. They realize that drug war has easily coexisted with profit-making on the part of weapons suppliers, narco-traffickers, and money-laundering banks and business enterprises.

Consensus on these points resonated at the “Latin American and Caribbean Conference on Drugs—For Life, Peace, and Development.” Called by President Petro and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, this gathering took place Sept. 7-9, 2023 in Cali, Colombia. Officials from 19 nations in the region were on hand.

The object was “to rethink drug policies in response to the failure of the punitive strategy imposed by the United States.” Some of the recommendations that emerged are worth highlighting:

  • To contain the drug problem internally by dealing with structural causes of poverty, inequalities, lack of opportunities, and violence.
  • To block drug trafficking through “principles of justice and through development.” To fight poverty by giving people opportunities, youth especially.
  • To explore legal modes of drug consumption.
  • To reduce demand through “universal prevention” and attend to mental health problems.

Still unanswered is why the United States fights narcotrafficking in Ecuador now. Increasing assertiveness on the part of indigenous peoples in Ecuador may have attracted U.S. attention. They displayed exactly that in a week-long national strike in June 2022. Demands then were labor rights, rescue of the natural environment, anti-poverty programs, and support for small farmers.

Ecuador’s Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE) organized the strike. Recently Leonidas Iza, the CONAIE leader, reacted to General Richardson’s visit. Referring to agreements signed by ex-President Lasso in September 2023, he told an interviewer that CONAIE “struggles on behalf of Ecuador, the Ecuadorian people, and Ecuadorian sovereignty…[and] We reject any kind of military presence.”

Citing an implied ban on foreign military bases contained in Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution, he noted that, “We have seen these last governments inventing anything. They break the Constitution and disregard norms, and…President Daniel Noboa is doing the same thing.”

As regards “the intentions of U.S. functionaries,” Leonidas Iza remarked that, “They need to safeguard interests in the world’s strategic resources…. They are upholding a policy on all of Amazonia involving water, mineral resources, and natural resources. We [Ecuadorians] are not only ceding military sovereignty but also the sovereignty of our country and beyond that, we are also submitting to the interests they have in controlling the region’s natural resources.”

The assumption here is that strategists in Washington see a parallel between Ecuador’s situation and that of other nations in the region with large indigenous populations, notably Bolivia and Peru. U.S. operatives had a big role in removing both Evo Morales’s Bolivian government in 2019 and that of Peruvian President Pedro Castillo in 2021, elected primarily with indigenous support.

For U.S. policy makers, now would be the right time for strenuous U.S. efforts aimed at preventing a similar bid for power in Ecuador. Specifically, the U.S. government would be staving off a rising of indigenous peoples and other marginalized and distressed Ecuadorians joining them.


-This article first appeared in the People’s World.