Ecuador: FARC-violence Spillover
The Colombian conflict seems to be spilling over to neighboring Ecuador. Thus far, there have been 8 attacks attributed to FARC dissident groups in Ecuador’s northern province of Esmeraldas. The first attack occurred on January 27, when a car-bomb exploded at the police headquarters in San Lorenzo, injuring twenty-eight police officers. A second incident occurred on February 17, when Ecuador’s military exchanged fire with an armed group in San Lorenzo. No injuries were reported on either side, but a suspect was captured, and the Ecuadorian government declared this a cross-border aggression. Then, another event occurred on March 20, when a bomb exploded in Mataje, killing three Ecuadorian soldiers, and injuring 11, who were patrolling the area. A fourth event occurred on March 26, when three journalists were kidnapped by a dissident FARC group while reporting on the increased violence in this region. The government has declared Esmeraldas in state of emergency.
Violence has increased in several departments of Colombia after the peace agreement between the Government of Colombia and the FARC in 2016. One of these departments is Nariño, a bordering territory with Ecuador’s northern province of Esmeraldas. Estimate point to approximately 12 armed groups operating in the department of Nariño, including violent paramilitary groups and even Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel.
As a result of the attacks in Esmeraldas, the Government of Ecuador has sent an additional 600 soldiers to its northern borders, where these attacks have occurred. These reinforcements will join 12,000 soldiers who are part of Ecuador’s military presence in its northern border.
The events in Ecuador’s northern border are attributed to FARC dissident groups allegedly led by “El Guacho.” In a proof-of-life video, the three kidnapped journalist appeared in chains and stated that the kidnappers demands are that the Government of Ecuador "release[s] three unidentified combatants and end anti-narcotics cooperation with Colombia in exchange for their freedom," according to the Associated Press.
Esmeraldas is one of Ecuador’s poorest provinces, and more than 50% of its population is Afro-Ecuadorian. Most of the province, particularly the bordering area, has little infrastructure, and lacks schools and hospitals. Additionally, the unemployment rate in Esmeraldas is one of the highest in the country at 7.8%.
This area has been historically abandoned and it is clear that lack of government presence has allowed irregular groups to operate there. Although there has been an increase in violence this year in Esmeraldas, bordering areas have always suffered from a spillover of the conflict in Colombia; however, the recent attacks as well as the kidnapping of the three journalists have brought increased attention to this area and issue.
Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno’s response to the increase in violence is half-correct. Increasing military presence in a situation like this is important; however, it also engages the country in the game that the dissidents are playing. As has occurred in other countries in the region – although under different circumstances – an increased military presence can escalate a conflict. A better approach would have been the same but in a subtler, and less public manner. The problem with this second approach is political: when an incident occurs, people are looking for an immediate and drastic measure to address the situation. Unfortunately, decisions made under these circumstances often do not produce long-term results.
The problem in Ecuador’s northern border is twofold. First, it is a governance issue, where the state must provide for the security and wellbeing of the population, including access to basic services, education, health, and protection from violence. Without government presence, irregular groups that control drug routes will continue operating and having and major impact and influence in the lives of people in this area. Second, it is a cross-border conflict with a non-state actor that does not operate under any pre-established international or national rules. Consequently, dealing with it will be extremely challenging.
Unfortunately, Ecuador is not prepared for a major spillover of the Colombian conflict in its territory. Efforts between the governments of Colombia and Ecuador to address this situation are important, and increased collaboration must continue to prevent these attacks from moving further into Ecuadorian territory.