How Ecuador’s media fuels militarism

Months of escalating violence in Ecuador reached crisis levels on 9 January when an armed group stormed a television station during a live broadcast in the port city of Guayaquil, taking media workers hostage and strapping grenades to them.

The siege was part of a series of coordinated country-wide attacks which saw at least 10 police officers killed and 178 prison guards and staff taken hostage by incarcerated gang-affiliated groups.

‘Instigators of terror!’ read one headline in the 14 January issue of Ecuador’s Extra newspaper. ‘Police and military faced terror,’ read another in Super, which hailed the state for providing ‘forces of order’. 

ecuador police
A military officer stands outside the Litoral jail in northern Guayaquil in mid-January. Prisoners had escaped this jail just days earlier. Photo: Malú Ramahí

To Verónica Calvopiña, a Quito-based feminist writer and audiovisual producer at the leftist independent media outlet Wambra, the on-air attack was a show of force. 

‘For me, the message [the gangs] were sending was to make the public terrified,’ Calvopiña said. ‘Fully broadcasting live the takeover of a channel… you wonder what happened to the workers at the channel, are they okay? And afterward, what will happen to us?’

‘Fully broadcasting live the takeover of a channel… you wonder what happened to the workers at the channel, are they okay? And afterward, what will happen to us?’

Latin America was the deadliest region in the world for journalists in 2022, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Across the region, states have struggled to contain the interconnected problems of illicit industries like drug cultivation and trade, illegal mining and logging in the Amazon, corruption and violence targeting Indigenous communities and activists.

Ecuador and Guayaquil in particular has become a key transfer point for the global drug trade, leading to a spike in disparate gangs seeking control over the market. 

Last year, nine reporters fled the country after receiving death threats for their work reporting on these issues. Paúl Mena Mena, a journalist with El Universo said the deteriorating security situation in Ecuador was causing ‘self-censorship’ among some reporters.

Ecuador houses
Latin America was the deadliest region in the world for journalists in 2022, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Families of hostages took to the streets to demand action for several days, and the state sought help from third parties like the Catholic Church and the Red Cross to mediate the negotiations, eventually leading to the release of hostages in the prisons. But in the weeks since 9 January, the crucial work of local media has been further complicated by a government that promotes an agenda of increased militarization, despite the threats this poses to human rights.

 

Parroting politicians

Pedro Piedrahita-Bustamente, a professor of political science at the University of Medellin in Colombia, said that local media run the risk of repeating government talking points because they lack the investigative capabilities to dig deeper into the roots of violent crime.

‘A lot of times [local] media outlets don’t have specialists on their teams that understand the dynamics of instability that exist across the nation because they exist just to cover news but not to properly analyze or investigate the actions the state takes to confront violence,’ he said. ‘This mode of thinking that papers and local media take ends up acting as a kind of parroting of the government’s strategy.’

In response to the January violence, the newly sworn-in President Daniel Noboa declared ‘war’ on the gangs and ordered the military to ‘neutralize’ the attackers, designating 22 groups as ‘terrorist organizations’. The decision to put boots on the ground across Ecuador is a major escalation in the country’s emerging use of militarization and heavy policing to combat gangs, which has seen armed forces granted the right to intervene in prisons and public security.

The government also sought support from the US Department of Homeland Security, which is making plans to train Ecuadorian police and prosecutors in targeting criminal drug trafficking organizations.

Noboa campaign poster
In response to the January violence, the newly sworn-in President Daniel Noboa declared ‘war’ on the gangs, designating 22 groups as ‘terrorist organizations’.

While human rights groups have raised the alarm about the encroachment of the military into public life, Ecuadorians have largely welcomed Noboa’s tough response to the gang problem, with one poll by the Quito-based research institute Comunicaliza showing 80 per cent of respondents back him. 

‘One of the key elements to manage a perception of security and insecurity is through the media, and people that read a lot of newspapers will stay off the street and be afraid,’ said Piedrahita-Bustamente. ‘When they see the reactions of the military and security state, it will validate their fear because, ultimately, they see [militarism] as a way to mitigate gang violence.’

‘When they see the reactions of the military and security state, it will validate their fear because, ultimately, they see [militarism] as a way to mitigate gang violence.’

Critical voices

Ecuador’s local media is not alone in its struggle to critically report on state interventions. A lack of funding and financing has thrown local media into crisis the world over. Many outlets are being forced to turn to larger media conglomerates, governments or political parties to sustain their business, which puts their editorial freedoms and integrity in jeopardy. 

But where some local media is caving in to pressure, opportunities for critical, alternative voices are starting to emerge across Ecuador.

 

Outlets like Wambra that examine and criticize the government’s policies are crucial in moments of crisis, said co-founder and journalist Jorge Cano.

‘We try to explain, recount and generate conversation and debate about what is happening in the country,’ he said.

Calvopiña added that Wambra also creates space for feminist and other diverse voices to speak out. She said she’s proud to seek reporting from Afro-Ecuadorians and Indigenous journalists to cover the way their community has been disproportionately impacted by military actions meant to address gang violence, and that these journalists are often excluded from coverage or blamed for the violence in Ecuador.

Journalists like Gabriela Peralta are attempting to subvert harmful, simplistic narratives put out by local press which frame the security crisis as ‘the State versus the mafias’, or ‘good Ecuadorians against and poor criminals’, by publishing explainers on the limitations of lethal force used by the military and police forces to tackle gangs, as well as the rights of citizens.

More than anything, Cano and Calvopiña said they felt Wambra’s role was to provide insight into what the state legally could and couldn’t do at a time when police and military activity is obscuring basic rights.

Ecuadorian police officer
Ecuadorians have largely welcomed Noboa’s tough response to the gang problem, with one poll by the Quito-based research institute Comunicaliza showing 80 per cent of respondents back him.

But Cano noted that their efforts to expose the abuses of the police and military has put them at odds with the government, which he said has used political power against voices that try to speak up about human rights.

Piedrahita-Bustamente warned that a military response to tackle internal violence fails to address the underlying problems associated with organized crime. 

‘When the state begins to confront issues with violence, organized crime networks start to diminish their violence so they won’t be as visible to the authorities and in that way, they can continue with their illicit businesses,’ he explained. ‘In this sense, then, the attacks by the military and the Ecuadorian state against specific crime groups will neutralize some members of the groups, but not the dissolution of these criminal networks in whole.’

A vote has been set for 21 April for a nationwide referendum on measures to tighten the government’s security powers and reform the constitution. Meanwhile, as Noboa continues his violent crackdown on fear continues to be felt acutely by many Ecuadorians. 

All photos by Malú Ramahí.