Opinion: What happened to Ecuador? How crime and power struggles brought a democracy to the brink

Soldiers in front of the National Assembly in Quito, Ecuador
Soldiers guard the National Assembly in Quito, Ecuador. President Guillermo Lasso shut down the legislature on Wednesday to avoid impeachment.
(Dolores Ochoa / Associated Press)

Ecuador’s president, Guillermo Lasso, dissolved the country’s legislature Wednesday to dodge an impeachment vote he appeared bound to lose. He invoked a previously untested constitutional provision known as “muerte cruzada,” or “mutual death,” which permits the president to send lawmakers packing and rule by decree while facing new elections within 90 days.

Lasso claimed to be defending not just himself but the country’s democracy, saying: “This is a democratic decision, not only because it is constitutional but because it returns the power to the Ecuadorean people.” But that argument wilts under scrutiny.

Confronting a power-hungry opposition, Lasso opted to push his presidential powers to their limits — or potentially beyond. The constitution permits muerte cruzada only under select conditions that may not have been met. Nonetheless, the military backed Lasso.


It’s not clear this was in Ecuador’s best interests. Shutting down the National Assembly is likely to stoke instability and, paradoxically, hasten the return to power of Lasso’s sworn enemies: Rafael Correa, the strongman who served as president for a decade ending in 2017, and his left-wing populist party.

Even before the crisis, Ecuador had been battered by an unprecedented surge in violent crime and increasing emigration. Lasso’s move portends more difficulty for one of the region’s most vulnerable democracies.

Make no mistake, the impeachment process was unscrupulous. The opposition, led by Correa’s party and disaffected conservatives, accused the president of tolerating corruption in government contracts but provided scant evidence directly implicating him. This was the second time the opposition tried to oust Lasso, a pro-business conservative elected in 2021.

Lasso chalked it up to an attempt to destabilize his government. About that, he was at least partly right.

Still, few expected him to survive the looming impeachment vote, which became a referendum on his presidency. Lasso, with little previous government experience, has failed to curb skyrocketing crime or fight widespread poverty and hunger, which affects 2.5 million Ecuadoreans. His government engaged in perilously little public spending even as it sat on unprecedented reserves as oil prices climbed. Worse, Lasso indulged in public tirades against opponents and journalists more befitting of his populist opponents. Nostalgia for Correa, who governed with an even if authoritarian hand, is growing.

Given that his removal from office was nearly certain, Lasso’s decision to disband the assembly was politically rational but democratically perilous for a few reasons.


First, Lasso’s move risks sapping state institutions of their already scant legitimacy. When popular presidents rule by decree, it can be dangerous; when unpopular ones do, they court disaster.

Lasso advanced to the runoff that made him president with less than 20% of the vote and narrowly claimed victory thanks to the begrudging support of center and center-left voters willing to overlook his conservatism to avoid a return of Correa’s illiberal populism. But he has since alienated those constituencies while failing to satisfy his conservative base. His only major legislation was a tax reform that exacted a heavy toll on the middle class.

Meanwhile, scandals have rocked his government. High-level associates accused of corruption and links to organized crime have become fugitives and turned up dead.

As of earlier this month, Lasso’s approval rating had sunk below 14%. Nonetheless, moments after the shuttering of the assembly, a Lasso minister told journalists that his government would take advantage of the moment to push through a lightning round of executive decrees.

Ecuador’s powerful Indigenous lobby promises to launch protests if Lasso makes muscular use of his unilateral powers. Instead of six months of strong government, the country faces more executive weakness as its challenges metastasize.

Moreover, Lasso’s legislative shutdown could well empower Correa. During his rule, the former populist president reduced inequality but also harassed and spied on the press and opposition while accumulating more foreign debt. And the country shifted away from the United States and toward China, Russia and Iran.


By the time Correa left office in 2017, the country had also drifted away from democracy. His successors have to some degree reversed that, but Ecuador remains a flawed democracy.

The problem with Correismo is not its economic leftism or social conservatism, both of which have moderated over time. It’s the party’s tendency to concentrate and cling to power. Correa did not leave office quietly, trying unsuccessfully to install a pliant successor. Since 2020, he has taken up residence in Belgium to dodge a corruption conviction and hatch troubling plans for his party’s return to power. These involve replacing Ecuador’s 2008 constitution to help him purge the government of opponents.

Although Correa’s party is the largest in the assembly, he urged Lasso to disband it for months, anticipating — with good reason — that early elections would favor him. When Lasso did so, Correa openly celebrated.

Finally, the more energy Ecuador’s politicians spend on political battles, the less they have to take on the country’s most pressing fight: against organized crime. Ecuador’s homicide rate last year surpassed Mexico’s. Drug-fueled political assassinations, kidnappings and car bombs are becoming disturbingly commonplace in the once-peaceful country, overwhelming authorities.

The current political crisis further diminishes hope for progress toward a stabler Ecuador. Lasso’s decree powers are unlikely to help given his underwhelming record and limited support.

When the impeachment drama started, Ecuador was facing an array of bad options. Unfortunately, Lasso may have chosen the worst of them.


Will Freeman is a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.