Becoming Cuenca

Ecuador Actually Does Have a Chance

Feb 9, 2024

Every hour.

Well, almost.

Ever since January 9th, the Ecuadorian Facebook groups have been inundated with the same two questions from the United States and Canada:

“What is it like right now in Ecuador?”

“Is it safe to go to Cuenca?”

Every Facebook group had these questions asked ad nauseum.

The questions were happening at such a great rate that finally an expat snapped and told the person who posted the question to look at all of the other posts with the exact same question.

And people in North America are still asking expats in Cuenca how it’s going in Ecuador, all because of what they have seen on television.

As a journalist, I know how fluid events can be, but the questions were all based on media reports about January 9th.

Because this has become the number-one topic concerning Ecuador, I would like to help everyone to make an informed decision about visiting and possibly moving to Ecuador.

Let’s start with the world’s most dangerous countries to visit in 2024. It is based on factors such as conflict, crime, and political instability.

Topping most lists is Afghanistan. That is not a surprise to anyone. Other countries frequently mentioned are Syria, Yemen (Know about the Houthi?), Somalia, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, Russia, Ukraine, Mali, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Venezuela, Mexico, and Honduras.

Despite Mexico grappling with rising levels of violence in recent years, many Americans do not have second thoughts about going there. That is why airlines are always vying for their business.

The country’s homicide rate is among the highest in the world, with crime and drug trafficking being the primary drivers of violence.

Mexico is on many Americans’ bucket list despite kidnapping, extortion, and robbery being significant security concerns. This includes tourists often being targeted due to their perceived wealth.

Most lists use several criteria to assess how the conditions in the country may impact visitors’ safety and security.  That includes, which constantly updates the 30 most dangerous countries.

On February 3rd – 25 days after January 9th – Ecuador is not on that list. Nor is it on the most dangerous countries list compiled by medical and security consultancy International SOS. Their annual map assesses various factors to inform travelers and businesses about potential threats in countries across the globe.

Though it came out before January 9th, their map would have included the data from the crimes committed by the drug cartels in 2023.

So, it is pretty much agreed upon by various international organizations that Ecuador is not considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

This journalist with 43 years of experience knows that it can be difficult to get news about foreign countries, specifically Ecuador.

It was reported two decades ago that coverage of international news by the North American media had fallen dramatically from 1981 to 2001.

To examine the level of attention given to international news, a content analysis of four U.S. television networks by Guy J. Golan, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication of Seton Hall University and Wayne Wanta, a professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Florida, was made during the entire year of 1999. Golan and Wanta found that there were 3,183 international news stories for the entire year.

Another way to look at is that each network averaged 796 stories per year or a measly two international stories in a 24-hour period. And I can guarantee you those two stories were sensational, be it a war or mass demonstration (such as the French farmers with their protests and road blockages).

That is what happened with January 9th in Ecuador. The North American media showed the violence that day, but for the most part never followed up on it. And if the story appeared on television, the coverage was superficial at best. I say that as someone who was in television news for four decades.

This post is to help everyone get caught up on things in Ecuador. I am not the authoritative source for Ecuador, but please consider me a reliable one.

As always, I insist you use other reliable sources to get a full picture. I do it all of the time when I am reading about the latest in the U.S. or what is happening in my backyard.

For this post, my media sources included La República, El Universo, Teleamazonas, and Canela Radio. I used official governmental sources such as Presidencia Ecuador, Comunicación Ecuador, Fuerzas Armadas del Ecuador, and Policía Ecuador.

And most of the photos and images in this post are from governmental social media accounts. Any images of faces of people arrested have to be pixilated. Cuencanos tell me that exiled former president Rafael Correa created that law. Though conjecture, Cuencanos are adamant pixilated faces is to protect his friends in the drug trade.

In the weeks since January 9th, led by its new president, Daniel Noboa, Ecuador has responded to the drug cartels and gangs with a firm and professional response with what he called, Plan Fénix.

The name was no lost on me as the Phoenix bird symbolizes immortality, resurrection, and life after death. For Ecuador, it represents renewal, regeneration, and becoming new again… a country without drug cartels.

President Noboa decreed an internal armed conflict in Ecuador and identified 22 gangs as terrorist groups, according to Decree 111.

Jaime Vela Erazo, head of the Joint Command of Ecuador’s Armed Forces, warned that every gang member was now “a military objective.” He vowed not to “back down or negotiate” with armed groups, adding the “future of our country is at stake.”

Every day there are reports of the arrest and jailing of suspected gang leaders. According to the New York Times, authorities in Ecuador have detained more than 6,000 people. This is being done by “not going full Bukele.”

On February 8th, Policía Ecuador held a news conference to give an update on what had been accomplished. The national police said they had conducted 44,311 operations.

They added in a tweet, “Through this joint plan we managed to have a 12 percent decrease in violent deaths. We are forceful in the 18 prioritized districts where the highest number of crime was concentrated.”

Noboa is adamant about not casting aside the constitution or disrespecting human rights in the manner of El Salvador’s hardline leader Nayib Bukele. Ten days ago, Ejército Ecuatoriano – the Army of Ecuador – posted on social media, “We remain firm for our Ecuador. In our actions we observe respect for Human Rights.”

The 36-year-old Noboa, who holds an MBA from Northwestern and a Masters’ degree from George Washington University, has asked for help from the United States. Ever since President Rafael Correa, who kicked the U.S. out of Ecuador, there has been no American help to battle the drug trade.

That U.S. help came immediately. So far, the Biden administration has provided Ecuador with equipment and training along with roughly $93 million in military and humanitarian aid.

In a multi-national police operation, Henry Loaiza, (alias El Alacrán), was arrested on February 1st in Guayaquil. The arrest, based on a tip from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, was the second of a high-profile Colombian narco-trafficker in a week.

Carlos Arturo Landazuri (alias El Gringo), leader of the Oliver Sinisterra Brigade and considered Colombia’s most wanted man, was arrested January 24th in Ibarra (northern Ecuador).

There have also been offers of intelligence sharing and other help from Ecuador’s neighbors, including Brazil, Colombia, and Peru. Latin America understands that allowing Ecuador to deteriorate further would destabilize the whole region.

On top of that, there is talk of a new “border security network” among the Andean countries. Last month, Ecuador required anyone entering the country by land to have an apostille copy of their criminal background check.

Apostilles authenticate the seals and signatures of officials on public documents such as birth certificates, court orders, and criminal background checks. If you decide to move to Ecuador, you will need to apostille some of your documents.

How aggressive was Noboa and Plan Fénix?

Police and military operations increased in various sectors of the country, especially the provinces that had the highest crime rates. The vast majority of the operations were in the coastal provinces of Guayas (three hours from Cuenca), Esmeraldas, Manabí, Santa Elena, and El Oro.

Everything was fair game for searches, including public transportation. No one seemed to mind the inconvenience.

In the first 18 days, some 49,761 operations were carried out in the country. You read that correctly. That is an average of 2,073 operations per province.

An anti-drug operation in Esmeraldas province resulted in the seizure of nearly one ton of illegal drugs. Three people, who were transporting the drugs in a boat destined for Central America were apprehended. The operation was conducted by Policía Ecuador and Fuerzas Armadas del Ecuador (Armed Forces of Ecuador).

During that time, Ecuador arrested and detained 4,107 people from the terrorist groups, according to the Ministry of Defense. These operations netted 1,383 firearms and 1,656 knives. In addition, 5,284 explosives were seized, and 831 stolen vehicles were recovered.

Ecuador’s military destroyed an airstrip on Puná Island that was believed to have been recently used to deliver cocaine from Colombia and Peru. It was located with U.S. technical support, which provided drone overflights and ground radar.

The landing field was close to the Port of Guayaquil, making its location optimal for drug traffickers. Puna Island was the third airstrip disabled by the military in two weeks. All three runways were at the coast.

These operations are so efficient that an escaped drug leader offered to turn himself in with conditions.

Noboa scoffed at it and said in a national radio interview, “To those gang leaders, go out to the streets. Confront the military. Of course, they don’t want to go out now. Not even with a pardon do they want to go out. That has never happened before. It has never happened before because they were used to frightening the government, frightening the citizens. Now that fear has to be put in them!”

Remember hearing how dangerous Guayaquil was?

Since Plan Fénix was implemented, Guayaquil, Durán, and Samborondón reported a 90 percent reduction in murders. I have never heard of such numbers anywhere in the world, especially in such a short period of time.

From being the most violent district in Ecuador and third in the world, Nueva Prosperina reduced murders by 88%. Nueva Prosperina is a very poor area of Guayaquil.

This did not go unnoticed by Americas Quarterly, the leading publication on business, politics, and culture in Latin America. On February 2nd, it ran an article with the headline, “Ecuador Actually Has a Chance.”

Just three weeks earlier, it was all doom and gloom from the award-winning publication. The author of the article, Brian Winter wrote:

When masked criminals in Ecuador invaded a TV station, took prison guards and police hostage and paralyzed the business capital of Guayaquil in early January, the prevailing reaction across the Americas was: Oh no, here we go again.

Another country overwhelmed by organized crime.

Another possible narcostate in the making.

That has all changed.

Including how Cuencanos and Ecuadorians feel about their leaders and institutions.

According to the data released on January 23rd, President Noboa has an approval rating of 80 percent, with 40 percent rating him with a “very good” and 40 percent with a “good.”

To put that into perspective, Joe Biden’s highest approval rating was 57. Donald Trump peaked at 49 percent, and Barack Obama had a high of 69.

Every Cuencano I talked to told me that they approve of what Noboa has done. And when I ask them when the last time was the National Assembly and the President ever got anything accomplished, they tell me it was a long time ago.

Noboa is so popular right now that he is the second most popular president in Latin America. Just six weeks ago, Noboa was the fourth most popular, according to Americas Society and Council of the Americas. Not bad for someone who was elected president with just 52 percent of the vote.

Expats are impressed, too. In a Canela Radio interview in late-January, Noba answered 30 questions with concise answers in a minute or less. As one American said on Facebook, Noboa’s answers were “not political diatribe or bluster.”

An American, who has lived in Cuenca for quite a while, is very optimistic what has happened since January 9th and posted her thoughts on Facebook.

“I feel very secure in this country (WE HARDLY HAVE ANY GUNS!) and encouraged that the current president is taking action toward his promises to take control of the prisons back from Colombian and Peruvian drug cartels,” wrote Frances. “Believe me, if you wanted to make me leave Ecuador and move back to the U.S., you’d need chloroform, duct tape, maybe an industrial crane, and a ship with chains and shackles.”

Deservedly so, Policía Ecuador had a horrible reputation. Few people thought the national police was doing its job. Many called the organization corrupt.

Noboa concurs: “I agree 100 percent, and not only the National Police, but also SNAI (Ecuador’s prison system) … It is as simple as that. They are being prosecuted. They are going to be prosecuted by the Prosecutor’s Office and they are going to follow a trial and from there they will probably end up in jail.”

Today, the opinion of the national police is better. It is why you see memes on social media of the police being one with the citizens of Ecuador.

Ecuadorians feel that the police are finally doing what should have been a normal daily thing. That includes arresting the bad guys.

“Those who assist or block any operation will also be prosecuted and purged because they are assisting terrorists,” said President Noboa in the Canela Radio interview.  “We have to be very clear on that.”

Purging included the director of the anti-narcotics police leaving as well as the director of the DGI (Dirección General de Inteligencia de la Policía Nacional del Ecuador) left.

We took them out,” said President Noboa. “Those things had to happen at the beginning in order to implement a security plan.”

Now, plans are in the works to send all foreign nationals who are in Ecuador’s overcrowded prisons back to their homeland. Reports say it could be as many as 3,000 prisoners being kicked out of the country.

“We will send Colombia the 1,500 Colombian prisoners that we are keeping in Ecuadorian jails,” said President Noboa. “According to Ecuadorian law, we can take them out of the country and through international treaties, we can take those 1,500 and leave them at the border. And thank you very much, stay over there.”

Life is a lot better today in Ecuador than five weeks ago.

And in Cuenca, there is barely any evidence of January 9th.

It does help that Cuenca has no geographical importance to the drug trade. And being isolated in the heart of the mountains makes it more difficult for any drug traffic to go through Cuenca.

In some ways, life is better today than prior to January 9th. The cliché, “Time will tell,” is very apropos.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

You may want to sign up to be notified when I post new information and photos. By doing this, you will get the latest as soon as it goes online.

And please! Have several reliable sources of information before making any decision about moving to Cuenca. I consider myself a trusted source, but you definitely need more than me for your big resettlement.

Salud, mi amigo.


Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.