Life in Ecuador in the midst of “internal armed conflict”: a superficial calm that does not appease fear

Hours after all of Ecuador watched the kidnapping live on a television channel, President Daniel Noboa expanded the state of emergency that was in force and declared an internal armed conflict. That is, he said that the State is at war with organized crime gangs. A month has passed since that announcement and we Ecuadorians are in limbo: we live in apparent calm, but we cannot recover our routines for fear that something else will happen.

The state of emergency implies a curfew. In these weeks it has changed. First it was nationwide from 11:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. And then a traffic light system was installed depending on the risk of each city. In Quito, for example, it lasted until midnight. The reason: the attempt to recover the already hit economy.

Despite the changes in schedules, at night in the north center of Quito there are fewer cars on the streets, fewer establishments open, fewer people in the restaurants of those who dare to open.

I have only gone out once, at night, to a public space. One Tuesday I met a friend at a restaurant at 7:00 p.m., an hour and a half before the time we usually go out. We arrive and in the place with capacity for 70 people there are only two. In another time, we would have had to wait in line to get in because we couldn’t reserve and there would be no space.

Fear of going out

In the last two weeks I have asked at least 20 Uber drivers: “What has changed this time?” Everyone answers me more or less the same: it is very low. That is, they have fewer customers during the day and almost none at night.

We are afraid to go out.

Merchants in central Quito have said they are devastated. Among them are elderly women who live selling candles outside churches and who on their good days made up to 20 dollars. Now with luck they reach five. In these weeks, Ecuadorians go out as much as necessary.

The data that the Government publishes to, supposedly, transmit efficiency and tranquility reveal the state of putrefaction. Between February 9 and 8, 2024, the Police and the Armed Forces have carried out 80,701 operations. They have arrested 6,626 people – 241 for terrorism – and seized 2,116 firearms. They have carried out 125 operations against terrorist groups and have killed seven members of these groups.

We try to live our normal lives, but beyond the movement restrictions and the possibility of being stopped by a police officer or a soldier and searching our wallet or vehicle – because the state of emergency allows it – we see how the country that even A few years ago it was considered an island of peace, it is crumbling.

How can we be calm with these figures? And worse still, how can we be calm if in one of the videos recorded from one of the prisons, a criminal warns us citizens not to go out because they are going to kill any police or soldier they find.

In this time, fear has had its peaks, like when we saw how the prosecutor who was handling the television channel kidnapping case was murdered while driving his car on the same street where, a week before, a stray bullet killed a man. He was going to pick up his son from school.

If the prosecutor in the most important case of this time did not have enough protection or surveillance, how are the rest of us supposed to feel?

The rest does not only include adults. Children and adolescents have had to return to virtual classes, as in the pandemic. Leaving out countless students who do not have access to the internet or a mobile phone or computer. Those who do have this access have had to face a situation worthy of a horror movie: as of January 15, the Ministry of Education confirmed that there were 36 threats during virtual classes. Yes, hooded men who sneaked into the video calls to intimidate the boys, girls or adolescents and their teachers. How are we going to repair this?

Get out of the hole

Telling everything that happens for journalists has become a risk to life. Serious threats only increase for reporters. On January 12, a journalist from the province of Carchi, bordering Colombia, was forced to read a pamphlet on a local radio program. If he didn’t do it, they told him, they would kill his daughter. In the letter, addressed to judges, a bank and cooperative managers, he said that they were all “sentenced.”

It is true that we have not seen more kidnappings of television channels or coordinated terrorist attacks. TC Televisión implemented new controls at its facilities and the Police have strengthened their security: there is a mobile unit parked outside the complex and police patrols several times a day.

But that doesn’t mean we’re calm. In recent weeks, a colleague from the province of Esmeraldas, one of the most violent in the country, told me that, ironically, his city was calmer because it was militarized.

A month after the day when we Ecuadorians ran to lock ourselves in our homes due to the terror caused by the takeover of TC Televisión, it is inevitable to wonder if we are going to hit rock bottom. And the most difficult question to answer: how are we going to get out of this hole?

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