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The online narco state - Digital Threat Digest

PGI’s Digital Investigations Team brings you the Digital Threat Digest, SOCMINT and OSINT insights into disinformation, influence operations, and online harms.


As a dedicated Latin Americanist, I was naturally following Ecuador’s snap presidential election on Sunday – triggered two years ahead of schedule by President Guillermo Lasso to avoid impeachment proceedings. While Ecuadorian politics is normally confined to regional attention, it found itself under a global spotlight last week due to the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio just days before polling began.

Villavicencio was a former investigative journalist who fervently campaigned against what he saw as a strengthening nexus between politicians and criminal organisations, and his assassination--the third involving a politician in under a month--embodies Ecuador’s deteriorating security landscape. Stuck between the world’s largest cocaine-producing countries, Colombia and Peru, the Andean nation has evolved into a trafficking hub, which in turn has witnessed a surge in the power of criminal entities, including foreign cartels, vying for control of this lucrative market.

This tragic incident is also emblematic of the influential role of social media in the criminal world. Initial reports pointed to the criminal gang Los Choneros as the assailants behind the assassination. However, shortly after the murder, a video emerged on social media showcasing alleged members of a rival gang, Los Lobos, claiming responsibility, before a second video began circulating online featuring self-proclaimed ‘authentic’ Los Lobos members stating that the initial video was fake and that they had been framed.

Across Latin America, criminal organisations have capitalised on the mass growth of social media platforms, utilising them as tools to advance their nefarious activities. While criminal groups have always sought outreach, their permeation into online spaces has opened up new frontiers, allowing gangs to assert their dominance, recruit members, and showcase their prowess through propaganda and orchestrated displays of power, to a much wider audience. In Mexico, for example, prominent cartel members frequently glorify their lifestyles through online videos while simultaneously delving into their follower base for new recruits.

Sunday’s election saw no candidate reach the required threshold for a first-round victory, meaning that the top two candidates – a protégé of former socialist President Rafael Correa and the right-wing son of a banana tycoon – will go to a second round on 15 October. While both candidates have prioritised security in their manifestos, the chances of an improving landscape appear slim. The recent surge of criminal activity in Ecuador is a product of deeply rooted social conditions, which in turn necessitates comprehensive bottom-up approaches to generate meaningful progress.

The same dynamics apply to social media platforms in their fight against dangerous organisations. Their policies must extend beyond surface-level interventions, and incorporate proactive assessments of the infrastructure, behaviours, and attack surfaces which facilitate the digital growth of criminal groups – allowing them to target these organisations at their source.

More about Protection Group International's Digital Investigations

Our Digital Investigations Analysts combine modern exploitative technology with deep human analytical expertise that covers the social media platforms themselves and the behaviours and the intents of those who use them. Our experienced analyst team have a deep understanding of how various threat groups use social media and follow a three-pronged approach focused on content, behaviour and infrastructure to assess and substantiate threat landscapes.

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