Community resilience in the face of rising crime and violence
With its lush rainforests, mangrove swamps and palm-fringed beaches, the province of Esmeraldas, nestled the far northwest corner of Ecuador is reminiscent of a tropical Caribbean holiday destination.
45% of the population in Esmeraldas is of African descent — the highest concentration in Ecuador. This African heritage permeates every aspect of the culture here: from the rhythms of the marimba to its fresh cuisine culinary expressions such as the encocado (a Creole fish stew made with coconut milk), to the warmth of the people. As appealing as this sounds, I am not here on holiday.
The rate of crime and violence has risen sharply in Ecuador’s coastal areas over the last few months, including in Esmeraldas. Official reports show that homicide rates have tripled. Car bombings, executions and extortions, that bear the hallmarks of drug gangs, are rising as criminal groups fight for control of drug trafficking routes and territory. In some neighbourhoods of the provincial capital, invisible borders limit freedom of movement.
To understand how this dramatic spike in criminality is affecting the UN’s ability to implement programmes on the ground, I travelled to Esmeraldas to meet with several UN teams and partners working in the province.
“We know that teachers are afraid to go to work after experiencing threats and harassment from gangs, and some of them have abandoned (some) schools", my colleague explained.
This is especially troubling in a province where schools have been closed for a year and a half due to the pandemic, and illiteracy rates stand at 15%. Outside the education system, children and adolescents are at greater risk of early pregnancy, drug use and being recruited into gangs.
Growing concerns about rising crime rates
The pandemic has exacerbated underlying vulnerabilities in Esmeraldas, including its high levels of extreme poverty (twice the national average) and soaring unemployment rates. Food insecurity in Esmeraldas is also high, which is surprisingly given its reputation as a ‘green province,’ well known for its agricultural production and fishing industry.
The deteriorating safety situation is concerning local authorities as well. In the cantons along the neglected northern border with Colombia, families have fled their homes in order to avoid criminal groups which have infiltrated the area.
During my visit to the province, the Ombudsman's Office explained that there are now areas of Esmeraldas where they no longer operate, putting the rights of vulnerable groups, including refugees and migrants, indigenous populations, and women and girls at risk.
With the financial support of the European Union, the United Nations — UNHCR, IOM, UNFPA and UNODC, are working with national and local authorities to address this gap by designing an Early Warning and Response System to help prevent and manage crises arising from human rights violations and strengthen institutional response capacities.
Later in my visit to Casa Marimba, a shelter for women and children who are survivors of domestic violence, I met Sabina, a 32-year-old mother of four who had escaped her abusive and violent husband. "I tried to leave many times, but the system works against you. The authorities do not take you seriously," she tells me earnestly and points out the ways in which she had been discouraged before to leave and take legal action.
At Casa Marimba, thanks to the support of the Municipality and UNFPA, UN Women, UNHCR and WFP, Sabina receives food and shelter, emotional and psychological support, and legal and social assistance. "I want to study," she says. "I want to show my children that I am strong”.
Unfortunately, Casa Marimba is the only domestic violence shelter in the province, where an estimated 68 per cent of women have experienced some form of violence. In addition, the local emergency number ECU911 receives an average of 12 to 16 calls per day related to gender-based violence.
Strengthening community and civil society engagement
In the face of these daunting challenges, I was uplifted by the robust civil society and resilient community leadership in Esmeraldas.
At the Casa Comunitaria in the 26 de Febrero neighborhood, I spoke with community advocates who work tirelessly on behalf of at-risk groups.
Whether they focus on people with disabilities, migrants, refugees, sex workers or LGBTQ+ people, these local leaders are stepping up to fill a void. "There is strength in numbers," they explained, as they described the human rights monitoring, empowerment and advocacy work they do to support the enforcement of public policies. This has been made possible through leadership training and financial support from UNHCR, UNFPA and UNICEF.
A similar determination was shown by "Mujeres del Sur", a network of Ecuadorian refugee women and community leaders working to mitigate gender-based violence and end the recruitment of people by armed groups. Their work, supported by UNICEF and UNFPA, focuses on adolescent boys and girls. They offer safe spaces to talk about new notions of masculinity and violence prevention.
When I met with the women at the Walter Quiñonez educational unit, they proudly showed me the medicinal garden they had created with the support of UNHCR.
"The garden is good for many reasons", says Pamela, a refugee from Colombia. "It is a safe and healing space where we can forget about insecurity and discrimination. Here we come together to talk and support each other. We educate ourselves and preserve our ancestral knowledge of medicinal plants. It helps us to maintain our heritage and our culture."
This educational facility is in a sector at risk of floods and landslides. To address this threat, UNDP will work with local networks on the second phase of a reforestation pilot project for flood control, which will be combined with training and awareness-raising on climate risks. The women are hopeful that these UN-supported initiatives and training will enable them to secure employment, earn a decent income and keep their families safe.
Like their communities and the province itself, the women of Esmeraldas showed remarkable resilience in the face of economic hardship, violence and danger while maintaining their warmth and hospitality.
Their spirit and the determination of local authorities and community leaders have strengthened my commitment to work with my courageous UN colleagues in Esmeraldas.
Despite the ongoing safety and security challenges, Esmeraldas is a fantastic province I would like to return to, not only for work.
The original version of this blog post was written by Lena Savelli, Resident Coordinator in Ecuador. This edited version was produced with the editorial support of the Development Coordination Office (DCO).
For more information on the UN’s work in Ecuador, please visit Ecuador.un.org.