Ecuador Country Profile


Key Statistics

Population: 15.74 million (World Bank, 2013)

Capital: Quito

Languages: Spanish, Kichwa

Major Ethnic Groups: Mestizo 71.9%, Montubio 7.4%, Afroecuadorian 7.2%, Amerindian 7%, White 6.1%, others 0.4%

GDP per Capita (current US dollars): 6,565 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015)

GDP per Capita PPP (current international dollars): 11,839 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015

Security Sector Stats

Active Armed Forces: 58,000 (Military Balance, 2014)

Small Arms: The estimated total number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians in Ecuador is 350,000; the defence forces are reported to have 240,000 firearms; and the Police in Ecuador are reported to have 42,000 firearms (Gun Policy, 2015)

Military Expenditure: 3.0% of GDP (The World Bank, 2013)

Executive Summary

Ecuador is a key transit point in the international drugs trade and, as a result, has seen an increased presence of international criminal actors over the past two decades. Though its homicide rate is still lower than its northern neighbour Colombia, for example, it has risen dramatically in the past 20 years before stabilising in recent years. In addition to this, the country experienced a period of profound political and economic instability, leaving the nation ill-equipped to deal with rising crime rates.

The endemic corruption in both security and justice institutions has long benefited criminals and significantly contributed to widespread impunity. It is a problem that the current president, Rafael Correa, who was brought to power with a mandate to enact radical change, is now trying to address. The military’s role has been expanded in fighting organised crime and there are ambitious plans to increase police numbers by 40 percent by 2017. The government has undertaken a series of sweeping judicial reforms in recent years as well, though these measures have received mixed reviews and may not adequately address the most pressing issues in the justice sector.

There are crucial opportunities to engage and help strengthen Ecuador’s institutions. However, this must be approached with caution as the government has proved to be resistant to criticism from outside actors in the past.

Security and Justice Context

Historically one of South America's safer countries, Ecuador’s security has been impacted by governmental instability and transnational organised crime over the past two decades. Its geographic position between the world's two main cocaine-producing nations, Colombia and Peru, porous borders, endemic corruption and weak state institutions have made Ecuador an ideal environment for both international and national criminal actors to operate with relative ease.

Between 1990 and 2004, murder rates almost doubled from 9.8 to 18.1 per 100,000. Since President Rafael Correa came to power in 2007, the seventh person to take office in a decade, the figure hovered between 16 and 18 murders per 100,000 before dropping in 2011 and 2012 (See Figure 1.).


Fig. 1 Ecuador Homicide Rate 2004-2012

The US State Department has estimated that 120 tons of cocaine pass through Ecuador annually, a trade which though historically controlled by Colombian criminal groups – most recently the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and trafficking syndicate the Rastrojos-has seen increasing involvement from Mexican cartels in recent years. Russian, Chinese and East European gangs are also present.

Ecuador is also a major transit country for the precursor chemicals used to make illicit drugs, such as acetone, sulphuric acid and potassium permanganate, which are used to turn coca paste into cocaine.

In terms of domestic drug consumption, Ecuador has historically had one of the lowest rates in Latin America, but this has begun to change in recent years. The US State Department has reported a rise in drug use by Ecuadoreans, and in the first half of 2012 police seized 1.6 tons of illegal narcotics destined for the Quito market, nearly all of it being marijuana. Growth in domestic demand for illicit narcotics is a driver of urban violence, as local gangs battle for control over micro-trafficking profits. Though no major domestic criminal groups have emerged in Ecuador, the country is home to hundreds of small gangs which engage in robbery, assault and drug dealing[1] .

The phenomenon of express kidnapping, where individuals are held for a few hours and often asked to empty their bank accounts, is Ecuador's third most common crime after robbery and assault, and has become a particular problem in Guayaquil, the country's second-largest city. The express kidnapping rate in Guayaquil reached an average of 11 per week in 2011, a figure which remained consistent in 2012.

Ecuador's dollar currency has made it increasingly attractive as a money laundering destination for transnational criminal groups, with stringent bank secrecy laws and lax restrictions on moving money adding to the appeal.  The total amount estimated to have been laundered in Ecuador in 2011 was $3 billion, amounting to four percent of the country's GDP. Comparatively, money laundering in Colombia is estimated to equate to around three percent of GDP.

Ecuador is also a major hub for arms trafficking, primarily for the FARC, the oldest guerrilla insurgency in the Western Hemisphere.  Most arms come into the country from Peru then make their way northwards to safe houses in central cities, before being trafficked to Quito where they are picked up by intermediaries for the rebels or other criminal groups.

As well as trafficking cocaine and arms through Ecuador, the FARC has long used the country as a logistical hub, maintaining supply lines for precursor chemicals, food and medicines, and using the northern border province of Sucumbíos to rest, receive medical care and plan operations. There is evidence to suggest that Correa's 2006 election campaign received funds from the FARC, and that senior members of his government had ties to the organisation.

Ecuador is a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking. The majority of domestic victims are thought to women and children from the border and central highland regions that are moved to urban areas for sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and forced labour, according to the US State Department. Chinese Triads have taken advantage of Ecuador’s lax visa regulations enacted in 2008 - which allow citizens of almost every country in the world to enter for 90 days without a visa - to increase their hand in human trafficking operations.

According to one senior US official[2] , in every major case of non-Mexican and non-Central American illegal immigrants entering the United States in 2009, the migrants had transited Ecuador. This included East Africans, Southeast Asians and Central Asians.

Perceptions of Insecurity

According to Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), the perception of insecurity in Ecuador has remained consistent for the last few years. In 2001, the level was 46.6 points, and this figure was exactly the same in 2010, with some minor variations in the intervening years[3] . The figure dropped to 44 points in 2012 (See Figure 2.) but still ensured that Ecuador had the 5th highest perception of insecurity in the region.

Fig. 2 Ecuador Perceptions of Insecurity 2010 and 2012

Security and Justice Institutions

Justice Institutions

Ecuador's justice institutions have recently undergone sweeping reform which as of January 2013 was in its final stages. According to the most recent system laid out under the 2008 constitution, the system is headed by four organs: the National Court of Justice (Corte Nacional de Justicia), which is formed of 21 judges selected for nine-year terms, the Constitutional Tribunal (Tribunal Constitucional), consisting of nine magistrates who serve for four years, the National Judicial Council (Consejo Nacional de la Judicatura), composed of independent jurists and professionals who oversee the justice system, and the Contentious Administrative Tribunal (Tribunal Contencioso Administrativo) which is the highest administrative court.

The members of the National Court are selected by the Judicial Council, but those currently serving were selected by a Transitional Council comprised of three members, one chosen by President Rafael Correa, one chosen by the National Assembly (Asamblea Nacional), and one chosen by Transparency and Social Control, a fourth branch of government tasked with oversight. The Judicial Council was dismantled during the transition period but was resurrected in late 2012 and formally inaugurated January 2013, with five members respectively selected by the president, parliament, the National Court of Justice, the Prosecutor General (Fiscal General) and the Ombudsman, and parliament. The National Court oversees regional courts, First Instance Courts and Minors Courts, which have jurisdiction over the territory of each province.  The National Court holds final appellate jurisdiction.

Criminal investigations are handled by the Office of the Prosecutor General (Fiscalía), which oversees provincial prosecutors, while the Office of the Attorney General (Procuraduría General de la Nación) acts as the state's legal representative. The Office of the Comptroller General (Controlaría General de la Nación) is responsible for investigating and disciplining government personnel though can only impose administrative penalties -- if a crime has been committed it must be referred to the Prosecutor General’s Office.

An Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) acts to protect people’s human rights as defined under Ecuadorean law. It has representatives throughout the country.

During the last decade Ecuador has made the transition from an inquisitorial to an accusatory system like many Latin American nations, and was aided by the American Bar Association. As previously mentioned, it has also recently undergone major reform regarding the selection of judges and prosecutors. However these changes have so far done little to combat the corruption, inefficiency and impunity that have plagued the system for years; indeed, many fear President Correa’s reform project will only undermine the judiciary further.

The United Nations called on Ecuador to address “astonishingly high impunity” for killings in 2010, noting that for every 100 killings, only one perpetrator was brought to justice. It also highlighted generalised inefficiency and corruption. Reports in 2011 and 2012 from the US State Department and US non-government organisation (NGO) Human Rights Watch (HRW) cited these issues as on-going, significant hurdles to justice.

Levels of impunity for human trafficking are also extremely high, with government figures recording just four prosecutions for 115 reported cases in 2012. Authorities have also been criticised for abusing anti-terror laws to prosecute legitimate protesters. Political influence resonates throughout the judicial system, an issue now thought to be worsening (see below). In the 2012-2013 World Economic Forums’ Global Competitiveness Report, Ecuador placed 128th out of 144 countries for judicial independence.

Compounding these problems is serious overcrowding in the country’s prisons which are managed by the National Directorate of Social Rehabilitation (Direccion Nacional de Rehabilitación Social) housed under the Justice and Human Rights Ministry (Ministerio de Justicia, Derechos Humanos y Cultos). Torture and ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners is reported to be widespread. In 2010, then Minister of Justice Jose Serrano stated that existing facilities were overcrowded by 93 percent; inmate numbers went on to rise in 2011. Medical care is inadequate and prisoners have reported widespread extortion by prison guards, officials, and other inmates.

Security Institutions

Ecuador’s Interior Ministry (Ministerio del Interior) oversees the National Police (Policía Nacional) which has around 42,000 officers and is the primary body in charge of internal security. An Armed Forces numbering 39,000 in personnel is overseen by the Ministry of National Defence (Ministerio de Defensa Nacional).

In September 2011, Interior Minister José Serrano said that according to United Nations standards Ecuador had a deficit of 17,000 police officers, announcing plans to increase the force to the required number by 2017. Also in 2011, President Rafael Correa announced plans to create a specialised detective unit to investigate serious crimes and a secret service body to protect state officials, in order to give the police more time to focus on regular crime fighting.

According to police figures, the force’s budget grew from $243 million in 2001 to $903 million in 2011, a 270 percent increase. However, the increasing funds have done little to improve the police’s reputation, which like that of the judicial system has long been marred by endemic corruption, as well as widespread human rights abuses. These include unlawful killings, use of excessive force and arbitrary arrest and detention. The US State Department notes the force’s efficiency is also impaired by poor hiring procedures and insufficient training, supervision, and resources.

A major police revolt in 2010, during which President Correa himself was attacked, harmed the institution’s reputation in the eyes of the government and many of its citizens. A judge ruled that the military could take over some domestic patrolling in 2008, and in 2012 then Defence Minister Miguel Carvajal announced some 4,000 military officers would be trained in fighting crime. The military enjoys a good reputation with its citizens and internationally.

In 2009 Ecuador’s National Assembly approved a plan to reorganise the intelligence services, replacing the National Intelligence Directorate (Dirección Nacional de Inteligencia) with an Intelligence Secretariat (Secretaria de Inteligencia) that provides intelligence for both the police and the military, led by an Intelligence Secretary appointed by the President.

According to a statement made by Defence Minister María Fernanda Espinosa in January 2013, the government tripled defence spending between 2007 and 2012, assigning more than $6 billion in total over the five years. Ecuador has one of the higher military expenditure rates in the region; in 2011 it spent 2.4 per cent of its GDP.

Ecuador’s national development plan (Plan Nacional para el Buen Vivir 2009–2013: Construyendo un Estado Plurinacional e Intercultural) makes a number of ambitious targets regarding justice and security. Its overall goals include fostering an independent, efficient, and effective administration of justice, and promoting the knowledge of legal and judicial processes among the population. Specific targets quoted include: to ensure that 75 per cent of cases are resolved by 2013; to reach 60 per cent of efficiency in the resolution of criminal cases by 2013; and, to reduce the rate of homicides by 50 percent by 2013.

State of Security and Justice Sector Reform

Justice Sector Reforms and Initiatives

In May 2011, President Correa called a popular referendum in an attempt to gain momentum and support following a challenge to his leadership the previous May[4] . The referendum had nine questions covering issues including major reform to the judiciary; Correa won a resounding victory on all.

Voters approved a proposal to dissolve the Judicial Council, a body of jurists which was responsible for choosing judges which had been criticised for inefficiency, and agreed to the creation of a new body, the Transitory Council of the Judiciary. The new council was asked to assess the performance of prosecutors and judges of all levels, fire people where necessary and select their replacements. The Transitory Council dismissed dozens of judges in August and September 2011, and more than 1,200 new judges and notaries were subsequently appointed.

The extreme measures were the only way to overcome the severe corruption and backlog throughout the system, said the government, which according to the non-government organisation (NGO) Freedom House was estimated to be 1.2 million cases. The government went on to issue a decree in September 2011 which gave around $400 million in emergency funds to the Transitory Council. According to government figures, the number of backlogged cases had been reduced to around 187,000 by the end of 2012.

Aside from personnel appointments, the Transitory Council oversaw reform in five other areas: improving civil infrastructure in 152 towns and cities, improving technological infrastructure to speed up cases, changing the management model, optimising the management of financial resources and improving coordination between the judicial system and other state and private institutions.

Correa’s efforts to reform the system could lead to a significant increase in the government’s influence over the appointment and dismissal of judges, HRW said in 2011. Of the three Transitory Council members, one was chosen by the president, one by parliament, where his party has a coalition majority, and one by the Transparency and Social Control branch of the government, which also contains politicians who support Correa.

Voters in the referendum also approved a constitutional reform giving the President and members of his government a direct role in a new judicial council to replace the once dissolved, which took over from the Transitory Council on December 1 2012. Some say this selection system gives Correa and his political supporters too much power, and could be abused.

The September 2011 Decree 872 declared a “national mobilisation, especially of all the personnel of the judicial branch.” Lack of clarity about the meaning of “mobilisation” could threaten judges’ independence by suggesting they must get behind government goals or risk dismissal, according to HRW.

Judges and prosecutors are still being trained as part of the transition from an inquisitorial to an adversarial system. US-sponsored training in 2011 focused on basic trial skills and advanced courses in complex and transnational crimes, such as human trafficking, money laundering and narcotics trafficking, according to the US State Department.

A new law to combat money laundering was announced in March 2012, making it mandatory for financial institutions to report unusual or unjustified transactions of more than $10,000.

Security Sector Reforms and Initiatives

In January 2011 the Ecuadorean government issued a decree handing control of the police to the Interior Ministry, ending what it called the “pseudo-independence, pseudo-sovereignty and pseudo-autonomy” of the force.  Previously, the police force controlled its own budget; Correa’s plans to intervene and stop police bonuses and promotions, as part of government austerity measures, were what sparked the 2010 challenge to his leadership. The decree gave the then Interior Minister Alfredo Vera 90 days to reform the force, transferring all police assets to his ministry and handing him ultimate control over its budget and legal affairs. Later that year the government went on to announce plans to increase numbers by 40 per cent by 2017, as described earlier.

Parliamentary/Congressional Capacity for Oversight

The Correa government, swept into power with a mandate that promised radical change to end years of political and economic chaos, chose to concentrate much of its power in the hands of the president. The new constitution in 2008 and subsequent 2011 referendum handed more power to Correa, also allowing him to run for election a second term in office in February 2013. The 2008 Constitution did create a fourth branch of government named Transparency and Social Control, purportedly tasked with oversight, investigating corruption and ensuring the government acts according to the constitution and the law. However, this too is influenced by Correa’s supporters. As such, the system of checks and balances is weak, despite the legislature being constitutionally independent from the executive.

Security and Justice Opportunities

Ecuador's vulnerability and appeal to international criminal organisations are enormous issues of concern. Persistent corruption in all areas of government presents a significant challenge to engagement, as does the considerable power wielded by the executive and its apparent hostility to criticism.

Ecuador ranked 118 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, with a score of 32[5] . This is one of the lowest positions in South America - only Venezuela, Paraguay and Guyana fared worse. Although a slight improvement on 2011's score, it is clear that Correa's stated desire to stamp out corruption is years away from being realised. His tactic for achieving this aim to date has seemingly been to hand himself more power to remove those deemed malign.  He has painted the fight against corruption as a class struggle or a battle between the left and right, ensuring Correa's anti-corruption statements and policies should be viewed with caution.

Justice Sector Opportunities

Ecuador's recent judicial overhaul represents an important opportunity for engagement. Its aim is to end the system's endemic corruption and inefficiency, but there are serious concerns about the independence of the new judiciary. The ramifications of the radical change will become apparent in coming years, and international monitoring is key. The government has claimed to have accepted and acted on recommendations made in an independent report on the judicial reform by an international oversight committee led by well-known Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon. Thus, it appears that it may be receptive to help from outside actors.

Security Sector Opportunities

Similarly, recent radical change to the National Police, handing control of the force to the Interior Ministry in January 2011, means it is a key moment to monitor Ecuador's security forces. The nation is attempting to restructure the police force, implementing new techniques, strategies and training protocols. Input from modern, successful police forces in other parts of the world would be valuable, alongside other international assistance, especially given the history of human rights abuses by Ecuadorean security force members. The National Police requested and received human rights training from NGOs in 2010, revealing that it may be open to tackling this problem in earnest.

Civil Society Actors for Engagement

Ecuador has an active and diverse civil society, but organisations operate in an extremely restrictive environment. Already tough regulations were made worse with a 2008 decree and a 2011 law which allowed for government dissolution of NGOs that engaged in "political proselytising" or "compromising the interests of the state,” and gave the government and the public access to NGOs' internal information and required government ministries to create a "permanent plan" for purging NGOs.

In July 2011 all foreign NGOs operating in Ecuador were required to sign new agreements allowing the government greater oversight and control over their work and finances, following comments from Correa that certain NGOs operating in Ecuador were “extremely right-wing” and attempting to “replace the government and impose their politics.” The following September, 26 foreign NGOs were shut down and 16 others ordered to comply with their agreements within 15 days.

A leading body in human rights activism and strengthening civil society is the Regional Foundation of Human Rights Advice[6] (La Fundación Regional de Asesoría en Derechos Humanos). Another strong organisation is the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, known for organising popular uprisings. The Centre of Citizen Observation[7] (Centro de Observación Ciudadana) analyses public policy and has a branch dedicated to administration of justice.


Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2012-Ecuador,” July 2012

Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2012”, January 2012

International Assessment and Strategy Centre, “Ecuador at Risk: Drugs, Thugs, Guerrillas and the Citizens Revolution”, January 2010

ISN Security Watch, “Ecuador: Back door to America”, January 2009

Red de Seguridad y Defensa de América Latina, “Atlas Comparativo de la Defensa en América Latina y Caribe Edición 2012,” October 2012

Secretaría Nacional de Planificación y Desarrollo, “Plan Nacional para el Buen Vivir 2009 – 2013: Construyendo un Estado Plurinacional e Intercultural,” 2009

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2010: Democratic Consolidation in the Americas in Hard Times,” December 2010

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in Ecuador, 2010: Democratic Consolidation in the Americas in Hard Times,” March 2011

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2012: Towards Equality of Opportunity,” November 2012 (Preliminary Version)

Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2012,” December 2012

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Homicide Statistics 2012,” Data set retrieved from

U.S. Department of State, “2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 1: Drug and Chemical Control,” March 2012

U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011,” May 2012

World Economic Forum, “The Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013,” September 2012


[1] Ecuador’s Prosecutor General’s Criminal Statistics Magazine estimated in 2009 that there were 712 youth gangs with more than 12,000 members.

[2] The official was interviewed by the International Assessment and Strategy Centre.

[3] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher perception of insecurity.

[4] Police and some military personnel had staged a one-day rebellion during which Correa was forced to take refuge in a hospital, before later being freed in a military operation which left five people dead.

[5] Transparency International’s Index rates on a scale of 100, 0 meaning highly corrupt, 100 highly clean.

[6] More information on their website:

[7] More information on their website:

Igarapé Institute

The Igarapé Institute is a southern think tank devoted to evidence-based policy and action on complex social challenges including global drug policy, citizen security and international cooperation. Its goal is to stimulate humane engagement on emerging security and development issues. Across all its programs, the Institute adopts a three-prong approach:

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  3. Design tailor-made solutions that are people-centered.

The International Security Sector Advisory Team

The International Security Sector Advisory Team (ISSAT) provides practical support to the international community in its efforts to improve security and justice, primarily in conflict-affected and fragile states. It does this by working with a group of member states and institutions to develop and promote good security and justice reform practices and principles, and by helping its members to build their capacity to support national and regional security and justice reform processes.