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Why Ecuador Matters

2:50 PM, Feb 14, 2013 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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Indeed, despite sincere attempts by the Obama administration to improve U.S.-Ecuador relations—including a June 2010 visit from then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during which Clinton actually hugged the Ecuadorean president—Correa has repeatedly thumbed his nose at Washington. And even though Ecuador is a small country surrounded by more influential neighbors, Correa’s presidency has had a very real (and very negative) impact on U.S. strategic interests. Take the loss of Manta air base: As Wall Street Journal correspondent John Lyons has written, Manta was “a critical post for monitoring airborne drug smuggling,” and Mario Pazmiño, the former head of Ecuadorean military intelligence, believes that the closure of the U.S. base contributed to the proliferation of Ecuadorean drug routes. 

What else could explain why Ecuador has suddenly become a Grand Central Station of organized crime? For one thing, Colombia’s successful crackdown on drug lords and the FARC guerrillas has made it much harder for international gangs to do business next door. For another thing, Correa has adopted extremely lax visa policies, which has made it much easier for foreign gangsters to slip in and out of the country. Also, Ecuador is a dollarized economy, which has enticed money launderers.

Then there is rampant police corruption—the sort of corruption that Ambassador Hodges complained about in her dispatch from Quito. This corruption has gotten worse under Correa, and it often has deadly consequences. Consider the story of Byron Baldeón, an Ecuadorean photographer who last May documented evidence of police corruption and subsequently testified in a criminal case. On July 1, he was murdered outside his home by motorcycle-riding gunmen. The shooting occurred in Ecuador’s most murderous province (Guayas).

For now, Correa is riding high on the oil-fueled social spending that has made him so popular among the Ecuadorean poor. But violent crime is a large and growing concern. In a May 2011 report, former United Nations special rapporteur Philip Alston noted that Ecuador’s homicide rate had “skyrocketed” over the previous two decades, rising by 82 percent between 1990 and 2009 to reach 18.7 per 100,000. “In some towns,” said Alston, “the murder rate exceeds 100 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, a rate that puts these areas among the most dangerous in the world.” Beyond murder, Ecuador is also struggling with armed robberies and “express kidnappings.” Earlier this month, in fact, a presidential candidate (Mauricio Rodas) was kidnapped and made to withdraw money from multiple ATM machines.

Unless Correa can get a handle on the violence, his approval rating may soon begin to decline. Either way, his reelection will be bad news for the United States.

Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.

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