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Events of 2023

Soldiers are deployed on streets as early voting begins in Quito, Ecuador, August 20, 2023. Elections took place in a violent context, including the killing of one candidate, journalist and former legislator Fernando Villavicencio.

© 2023 Rafael Rodriguez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In a context of fragile democratic institutions, Ecuador has seen a sharp increase in violence and activity by organized crime, which took homicide rates to unprecedented levels.

Longstanding, unaddressed structural problems, including limited enjoyment of social rights, have led to chronic protests and led a growing number of migrants and asylum seekers to leave Ecuador and head north.

In an October 15 runoff election, Ecuadorians chose businessman and former legislator Daniel Noboa, of Acción Democrática Nacional, as their next president. Elections were marked by violence, including the killing of journalist and former legislator Fernando Villavicencio, who was running for president.

On August 20, Ecuadorians voted in a nationwide referendum to halt current and future oil drilling in the heart of Yasuní National Park in the Amazon rainforest.

Allegations of corruption, lack of enforcement of Indigenous peoples’ rights, restrictions on access to abortion, and limited protection of children and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people remain serious concerns.

Violence and Crime

Ecuador’s homicide rate surged from 13.7 per 100,000 people in 2021 to 25.9 in 2022. In 2023, it escalated further to about 45, placing Ecuador among the top three most violent Latin American countries, alongside Venezuela and Honduras.

Two large gangs—the Choneros and the Lobos—collaborate with Colombian, Mexican, and Albanian drug traffickers supplying Ecuador. Fighting for territorial control, the gangs have escalated their use of extreme violence, including decapitations and dismemberments, car bombings, and attacks on and killings of judges, prosecutors, journalists, and political candidates.

Extortion by criminal groups continues to grow. Between January and June 2023, the National Police received over 4,600 extortion reports, doubling the number in the same period in 2022.

On July 23, armed men killed Agustín Intriago, mayor of the western city of Manta.

On August 9, an assailant shot and killed presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, of the Construye party, as he was leaving a campaign event in Quito, the country’s capital. Villavicencio had, for years, exposed government corruption and abuses by organized crime.

Gang violence in the streets of Ecuador is related to violence inside prisons, where overcrowding and lack of state control has enabled gang members to launch around 14 massacres that have taken the lives of more than 600 people since 2019, according to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Comité Permanente por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (CDH). Overcrowding is rooted in punitive drug policies, delays in granting prison benefits, and excessive use of pretrial detention. Prison guards are poorly trained and insufficient for containing violence.

In response to the surge in violence, then-President Guillermo Lasso declared a range of localized and some nationwide states of emergency, suspending constitutional rights. The government deployed the military, conducted prison raids, and authorized civilian use of guns.

Democratic Institutions and the Rule of Law

Democratic institutions remained fragile amid allegations of corruption, interference in appointments to senior positions, and politically motivated removals of authorities. Reports of trial delays, lack of due process, and improper pressure and disciplinary sanctions on courts and judges continued.

In May, then-President Lasso, who was facing an impeachment vote on corruption allegations, invoked an article in the Ecuadorian Constitution to dissolve the legislative National Assembly and call for new elections for president, vice president, and legislators. The constitution allows presidents to govern by decree until a new president takes office, but only on “urgent economic” issues. The Constitutional Court annulled several decrees passed by then-President Lasso during this period.

In September, the president of the Council of Citizen Participation, an independent branch of the government, announced an investigation into the 2019 appointment of constitutional court magistrates. The court, whose members were selected through an independent and transparent process, issued multiple rulings upholding basic human rights. The investigation appeared to be politically motivated and, according to Ecuadorian lawyers, the council lacked the legal mandate to conduct it. On October 6, the Constitutional Court removed the council’s president.

Environmental Protection and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

After decades of organizing led by a coalition of Indigenous peoples, youth, and activists, Ecuadorians voted in an August 20 referendum to halt current and future oil drilling in the Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini (ITT) area of Yasuní National Park—a United Nations World Biosphere Reserve. The ban would help protect the Amazon and the rights of the Taromenane, Tagaeri, and Dugakaeri Indigenous peoples, who live in voluntary isolation, but then-President Lasso and his Energy and Mines Ministry cast doubts on whether the government would comply with the referendum.

Voters also chose to ban all mining in the Chocó Andino reserve, near Quito.

Eduardo Mendúa, an Indigenous leader, was shot dead on February 26 outside his home in the Ecuadorian Amazon. At time of writing, one suspect was on trial while two others remained fugitives. Mendúa opposed oil drilling in an Indigenous community in Sucumbíos province.

Migrants, Asylum Seekers, and Refugees

A record 48,000 Ecuadorians crossed the Darién Gap, a dangerous jungle between Colombia and Panama, between January and September 2023, compared to about 29,000 in all of 2022. Joblessness, low income, general insecurity, and gang threats and violence are some of the factors causing people to leave.

As of late September 2023, over 201,000 foreigners, including over 193,000 Venezuelans, had registered for the regularization process launched in 2022 by then-President Lasso, for Venezuelans who had entered irregularly and for others who had overstayed their visas. Ecuadorian authorities had issued over 78,000 temporary exception residence visas (VIRTE), including over 77,000 for Venezuelan nationals. As of September, about 477,000 Venezuelan migrants and refugees lived in Ecuador.

Ecuador has recognized over 55,800 refugees between 2007 and 2023, most of them Colombian.

Children’s Rights

Sexual violence remains a problem in public and private schools. In nearly 26 percent of 20,000-plus sexual violence reports received by the Ministry of Education between January 2014 and July 2023, alleged perpetrators were within the national education system.

In June 2023, Ecuador’s Ombudsperson’s Office opened a non-judicial investigation, in collaboration with COCASEN, a coalition of civil society organizations working on children’s rights, into institutional sexual abuse against adolescents and other children.

In August, the education ministry launched the National Strategy on Comprehensive Sexuality Education, a step toward prevention of sexual violence in schools, in response to the ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of Paola Guzmán Albarracín. 

Ecuadorian human rights organizations and UN experts warned that, in the absence of jobs and education, an increasing number of children are being recruited by criminal groups, subjected to sexual exploitation, and coerced to engage in violence.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

Abortion is criminalized in Ecuador, except when a pregnancy threatens a person’s health or life or results from rape.

In a 2022 abortion law, Congress included measures that restrict access to the procedure, such as broad conscientious objection for individuals and institutions, a prerequisite to report rapes to authorities, and parental or guardian consent for girls. In 2023, the Constitutional Court maintained a temporary suspension of these measures. A final decision by the court was pending at time of writing.

Stigmatization, mistreatment, fear of criminal prosecution, and a narrow interpretation of the health exception to the abortion ban remain barriers to access.

The Attorney General’s Office reported 77 femicides—murders deemed gender-related—between January and September, more than in the same period in 2022. Civil society groups reported 238 femicides between January and the end of September.

Disability Rights

Institutional and social discrimination continued to restrict access for people with disabilities to work, education, and health care.

Ecuador adopted specific procedures in 2022 for responding to emergencies related to people with disabilities.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The National Assembly has yet to comply with Constitutional Court orders to revise civil marriage provisions to include same-sex couples, allow self-determination in gender recognition procedures, regulate assisted reproduction methods, and allow same-sex couples to register children with their surnames.

The constitution discriminates against same-sex couples by excluding them from access to adoption.

Freedom of Expression

Increased violence and political instability have hampered the work of journalists and media outlets.

Attacks against media workers increased, according to the free speech organization Fundamedios. Death threats and mailed explosive devices to several journalists and media outlets forced five journalists to flee Ecuador between January and September 2023.

Key International Actors

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk visited Ecuador in January, identifying challenges, including socioeconomic inequality, poor prison conditions, and security issues linked to transnational crime. Later, he expressed concerns about rising violence and the killing of Fernando Villavicencio. Various UN experts echoed his concerns, highlighting attacks on justice officials and linking poverty to the increasing violence and insecurity.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned “severe instances of violence” during the election campaigns and granted protective measures to Christian Zurita, who became Construye’s presidential candidate following the assassination of Villavicencio, and his team.

On August 8, during the first day of an Amazon Summit, Ecuador, along with seven other Amazon countries, signed the Belém Declaration, establishing a collective agenda to protect the Amazon.

Ecuador became a member of the UN Security Council in January 2023 and assumed the presidency in December. Ecuador’s draft resolution to strengthen the mandate of the UN Integrated Office in Haiti was adopted unanimously. Ecuador has used its Security Council seat to speak out forcefully on issues like Russian abuses in Ukraine and the importance of cross-border humanitarian aid for northwest Syria. Ecuador has been helping to lead the Security Council’s work on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine.