Ecuador’s Risky War on Narcos

After several hours of closed-door meetings with security officials, Daniel Noboa, the recently elected President of Ecuador, sat in a darkened office of the Presidential palace—an elegant eighteenth-century building, known as Carondelet, that overlooks the old center of Quito. When I arrived for our first meeting, Noboa was at a wide, empty desk, staring intently

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After several hours of closed-door meetings with security officials, Daniel Noboa, the recently elected President of Ecuador, sat in a darkened office of the Presidential palace—an elegant eighteenth-century building, known as Carondelet, that overlooks the old center of Quito. When I arrived for our first meeting, Noboa was at a wide, empty desk, staring intently at his phone. Several minutes passed in silence before he looked up, mumbling an apology. We shook hands, and I asked how he was doing. “Surviving,” he said. He didn’t mean this in the ordinary, mildly ironic, getting-through-the-day way. A week earlier, he explained, a dozen hit men had been intercepted crossing the border from Colombia, apparently sent by drug traffickers to kill him. Four of the would-be assassins had been killed in a shoot-out with Ecuadorian security forces. The rest were in detention, but there were presumably others out there. Now that he was President, he said with a rueful laugh, he would never be out of danger again.

Noboa’s story about hit men might have seemed exaggerated, not to mention impolitic, but a foreign diplomat in Quito later confirmed it to me. The diplomat was taken aback that Noboa was discussing a highly confidential incident, but, he said, the new President had not yet mastered the art of discretion. I spent several weeks this spring with Noboa, travelling around Ecuador, and found that he spoke in an unfiltered way about most things, including his dangerous circumstances. Only a few months into his Presidency, he was overseeing an “internal armed conflict” against twenty-two criminal gangs that, taken together, constituted one of the most powerful forces in the country.

When Noboa took office, last November, his presentation was far sunnier. He is athletically built, clean-shaven, and boyishly handsome; at thirty-six, he is the world’s youngest elected head of state. (Ibrahim Traoré, of Burkina Faso, is four months younger, but he seized power in a military coup.) He is the son of Álvaro Noboa, often said to be Ecuador’s richest man, whose family banana business has grown into a conglomerate with interests in everything from fertilizer to container storage. Álvaro, who has estimated his fortune at more than a billion dollars, also launched five unsuccessful Presidential campaigns of his own.

Until 2src21, when Daniel Noboa won a seat in the National Assembly, he was best known as an executive in his family’s business, and as an occasional presence in gossip columns. His first marriage, to Gabriela Goldbaum, a designer of high-fashion straw hats, ended in a difficult divorce. (Goldbaum claimed that the relationship unravelled after Noboa said he was going to Miami to meet with tax lawyers, then snuck off to Tulum with a woman named Anastasia.) He is now married to Lavinia Valbonesi, a twenty-six-year-old social-media influencer with arctic-blond hair.

“What’s that thing you just said that no one else heard, so if I say it louder everyone will laugh and think I’m the funny one?”

Cartoon by Suerynn Lee

Even Noboa described his run for President as “an improbable political project.” The country was in crisis. For decades, Ecuador, a small nation of eighteen million people, was generally regarded as a peaceful, stable place, at least by regional standards. Tourists came to see the Andes and to retrace Darwin’s route through the Galápagos Islands. Thousands of Americans retired there, seeking an easygoing, inexpensive life.

But across the border in Colombia the cocaine trade was flourishing. Despite a fifteen-year anti-trafficking effort supported by the United States, by 2src16 the country was producing more of the drug than ever, accounting for an estimated sixty per cent of the world’s supply. In the past few years, Ecuador—which has a dollarized economy, a modern road system, and major ports on the Pacific—has become a critical hub for the Colombian drug trade. Devastating violence and corruption followed. Particularly on the coast, where drug gangs dominated, killings became commonplace, and many Ecuadorians fled, heading to safer parts of the country or to the U.S.

Last spring, a snap election was called to replace President Guillermo Lasso, an unpopular conservative who was stepping down eighteen months early, under threat of impeachment for alleged embezzlement. Among the candidates was Fernando Villavicencio, a former journalist who spoke urgently about the need to constrain the drug gangs. Eleven days before the election, as he left a campaign rally in Quito, a squad of Colombian gunmen shot him dead.

The election proceeded in a state of fearful tension, but the shock benefitted Noboa. Previously regarded as a well-prepared but unexciting speaker, he caused a sensation by arriving at a debate wearing a bulletproof vest. He promised to improve security, along with creating jobs and attracting foreign investment. Perhaps as important, he made a virtue of his youth. One TikTok video showed him squaring up with a rack of dumbbells at the gym, wearing a tank top in the same highlighter yellow as the national soccer team’s jerseys. In another, which his campaign posted under the slogan “Noboa for everyone,” Ecuadorians stopped their cars to grab life-size cutouts of him that his team had placed on city streets. One of his communications advisers, a twenty-five-year-old named Doménica Suárez, told me that Noboa had attracted intense support from young Ecuadorians—a crucial demographic in a country with an average age of twenty-eight and a voting age of sixteen.

The election was held in two rounds. In the initial round, Noboa came in second. In the runoff, he won fifty-two per cent of the vote. He took office projecting an image of himself as a commonsense leader, a businessman without much interest in ideology. What he promised, at least at the beginning, was not a war but a return to normalcy. “I’m not anti-anything,” he said. “I am pro-everything.”

When Noboa was sworn in, he seemed wary of radical solutions to the crisis in Ecuador; his main proposal was to build maximum-security prisons. For years, the country’s overcrowded jails had been effectively run from within by the leaders of narco-trafficking gangs, who used them as headquarters to organize crimes. Villavicencio’s assassination was reportedly commissioned by imprisoned leaders of a gang known as Los Lobos. After the U.S. posted a five-million-dollar reward for information on the attack, seven suspects were found dead in their cells—murdered, it was assumed, before they could talk. Such internecine violence was common. Turf warfare among gang members had led to gruesome prison massacres and hundreds of deaths.

In early January, six weeks into Noboa’s Presidency, the news broke that the country’s most dangerous prisoner had disappeared from his cell. Adolfo Macías, alias Fito, was the boss of the powerful gang Los Choneros; he was serving thirty-four years for a series of crimes that included drug trafficking and murder. A photo of him being led into custody had been a public-relations victory for the government: the disgraced kingpin—long-haired, shirtless, and built like a former wrestler going soft—submitting helplessly to armed security officers. Now he had escaped. Perhaps most startling, it emerged that Fito had vanished just as Noboa was planning to transfer him to the country’s highest-security prison, known as La Roca, or the Rock. It seemed likely that someone in the government had facilitated his escape.

While campaigning, Noboa had often stopped short of endorsing a military solution to his country’s gang problem. Now he declared a sixty-day state of emergency and sent in the Army to take control of the prisons. Ecuador’s gangs fought back. Across the country, they set off car bombs, triggered prison riots, and attacked police stations; amid the chaos, a leader of Los Lobos also escaped from jail. At the height of the tumult, on January 9th, gunmen broke into the studios of TC Televisión, in the coastal city of Guayaquil. The station was in the middle of a news broadcast, and the cameras kept rolling as reporters and studio employees pleaded for their lives. The attackers, most wearing masks, put guns to their captives’ heads and ordered them to lie down. Before anyone could be killed, a police task force arrived and arrested the assailants. But Ecuadorians were shaken: a near-massacre had played out on live TV.

Noboa announced a state of internal armed conflict and instituted new rules: the drug gangs would henceforth be classified as “terrorists” and regarded as military targets. Across the country, soldiers carried out patrols and armed raids, particularly in poor neighborhoods. There were shoot-outs and arrests, followed quickly by reports of heavy-handed treatment of suspects and, in some cases, of torture.

The gangs did not seem deterred. A week after the TC Televisión attack, the prosecutor assigned to the case was assassinated. In one of our conversations, Noboa predicted that there would be many more such killings. Ecuador was corrupted from top to bottom, he said—infiltrated by the Colombian cartels, their Mexican counterparts, and Albanian gangs. Noboa is not an imposing figure, but since being elected he has seemed increasingly eager to demonstrate his mano dura, or strong hand. He told me he had seen intelligence showing that, when he launched his campaign, the narcos predicted his government would collapse within a couple of weeks. “That was their plan,” he said. “They never expected me to have the balls to declare war on them.”

The next morning, a car picked me up before dawn and sped me to a V.I.P. airport, to accompany the President on one of the drug raids that his security forces had been carrying out. Noboa arrived soon afterward, in a convoy of black Suburbans. Travelling with him was like taking part in a small-scale military operation. He moved under close guard from his motorcade to the Presidential jet or a Presidential helicopter; when he got out of a vehicle, bodyguards unfurled bulletproof screens to protect him from potential snipers. At stops, dozens of security men formed tightly choreographed cordons, overseen by an élite military unit and private security guards, including a laconic Israeli named Rafi. (In a moment of indiscretion, Noboa disclosed that he received intelligence and security coöperation from the C.I.A. and Mossad.)

On flights, Noboa occupied a recliner-size leather seat, embossed with the Presidential seal. Aides filled the other rows, and flight attendants circulated with snacks. He usually dressed down, in slacks and sneakers, though sometimes he wore a flight jacket with the words “Daniel Noboa Presidente” embroidered in gold thread. Generally, he spent the time absorbed in his own thoughts, or scrolling through his phone, but he would respond to questions, and if a topic interested him he’d argue for his point of view in seemingly inexhaustible detail. (Several aides speculated to me that Noboa is on the autism spectrum.) On one flight, his intelligence chief mentioned that Alex Jones was tweeting about the container ship that crashed into Baltimore’s Key Bridge, suggesting that the controls had been hacked. Noboa, looking up from his phone, dismissed social media as largely vacuous: “Only ten per cent of what’s on there is valuable information. The rest is poison.” He added that his wife, Lavinia, was profoundly addicted. “If you hide her phone for two hours, she’ll collapse,” he said. (In fact, she joined us on a subsequent trip and hardly raised her eyes from her screen.)

During my visit, Noboa was planning a swing through Manabí. With the referendum coming, he wanted to be seen visiting cartel territory, and also hoped to promote his programs for a “new Ecuador,” which would provide employment, wean young people from the drug business, and ease insecurity in the region. As his aides worked out details of the trip, five people were kidnapped from a hotel in a beach town near Manta, and their bodies were later found on the side of a road. The victims seemed unconnected to trafficking, and Noboa and his advisers were baffled, until a theory emerged that it was a case of mistaken identity, in which a drug gang believed that the visitors belonged to a rival group.

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