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Guayas, Ecuador: The Least Safe Place on the Planet?

Guayas, Ecuador: The Least Safe Place on the Planet?

by Benedict Vigers

LONDON -- In 2023, no other region anywhere in the world -- excluding active war zones -- felt less secure than Guayas, Ecuador. Just 11% of residents in the country’s most populous province said they felt safe walking alone in their area at night.

Outside of Ecuador, the only other global regions that come close to Guayas residents’ sense of insecurity are the Northwest (16%) and Eastern Cape (18%) regions of South Africa.


This represents a dramatic change in just a few short years. In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a majority of residents in Guayas (55%) felt safe walking alone at night. But since then, the country and region have descended into gang violence and public safety has collapsed.

Residents in Guayas feel significantly less safe than Ecuadorians as a whole (27%), where feelings of public safety vary significantly by region. The Eastern region of Ecuador feels most safe (43%), compared with 34% in the Mountain region, 27% in the rest of the Coastal region and just 11% in Guayas.

Homicides Skyrocket in Guayas as Hope Fades

For years, the small Andean nation of Ecuador was known as a relatively peaceful country, located between the world’s two largest cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru. But since COVID-19, the country has spiralled into a deep security crisis. Ecuador is an increasingly important node in global cocaine trafficking. The port city of Guayaquil -- Ecuador’s most populous city -- acts as a critical export hub for transporting cocaine to Europe.

Gang violence and homicides have spiked as a result, with Ecuador’s murder rate reaching nearly 50 per 100,000 residents in 2023, one of the highest rates in the world. Guayas accounted for 47% of all homicides in Ecuador last year, even as rates dropped sharply in other parts of the country. There is a close relationship between Ecuador’s national homicide rate and how safe its people feel.


In addition to the rising homicide rate, residents of Guayas have other reasons to report feeling unsafe: 39% reported they had money or property stolen in 2023, and a further 24% said they were physically assaulted.

The majority of Guayas residents (51%) would now like to move permanently to another country, the highest total on record for the region. But while many have dreams of fleeing the violence, a much smaller 15% think they are likely to move from the city where they live in the next 12 months, leaving most trapped in a region where riots, bombings and murders are now regular facts of life.

Ahead of Referendum, Ecuadorians Lack Faith in Law Enforcement

To stem the spiking violence and descent into lawlessness, President Daniel Noboa introduced a state of emergency in January and announced a referendum on national security to take place on Sunday. The vote seeks to expand the powers given to Ecuador’s police and military to control the violence, as well as impose stricter gun control and extend the sentences of those convicted of organized crime.

Ecuadorians have little faith in law enforcement’s capacity to solve the problem. Majorities lacked confidence in their police force (56%) and judiciary (72%) in 2023, rising to 67% and 78%, respectively, in Guayas, where the security crisis is most keenly felt.

Ahead of the vote, many are speculating whether Noboa will follow an anti-crime strategy similar to that of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele. Bukele is widely credited with orchestrating a rapid decline in El Salvador’s crime rate, although his strong-arm methods have drawn criticism. El Salvador now has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Bottom Line

The Ecuadorian government is coming under increasing pressure from outside of and within its own borders. Ecuadorians will soon vote in a referendum on a range of measures designed to address the country’s worsening security crisis. While crime rates fell in certain pockets of Ecuador last year, they continued to spike in Guayas.

As violence grips his country, Noboa will be judged on whether he -- and the forthcoming referendum he brought about -- can bring order back to a country where disorder currently reigns.

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