Pancho and Alexander

Ecuador: "We are made for great things"

One of the most complex countries in Latin America besieged by drugs, violence and an economic crisis. But where hope never stops nourishing the hearts of many. The stories of Isabel Maria, Pancho and Alexander.
Maria Acqua Simi

Isabel Maria, Pancho and Alexander were born and raised in Ecuador, a South American country named after the Equator that borders Peru and Colombia. A Spanish colony for a long time, independent since 1830, the country is now one of the most violent and complex in Latin America. These three friends, who share the experience of the movement, live between the capital Quito and Guayaquil. They recount that things have not been easy since the narcos began to take over the entire state. Once just a transit territory for Colombian coca, Ecuador has now become a producer, consumer and exporter of drugs, especially to Europe and the United States. This has dramatic consequences for the population, especially for young people.

Pancho is 38 years old, he has three children, and has long had to deal with the crisis in the neighbourhoods of Guayaquil. "I used to live in Duran, but the level of violence was such that when I got married we moved. Only not long after, the rest of the country was also engulfed by chaos. Murders in the streets, bus stations hit by attacks, people kidnapped, shopkeepers blackmailed, minors lured by narcos... One evening my daughter Eugenia asked me if we too would be killed. That eight-year-old's question moved me and set me in motion: why is it worth working, staying in Ecuador, investing our lives here? The answer is that there is good here too: I see it in my friends, in the way we are together at School of Community, and how this revives each of us in the place where we are called to be. This friendship, this certainty that we are all called to a good destiny as Christ announced, is already the beginning of a response to violence.”

Isabel Maria, for the same reason, has been fighting like a lion in politics since 2012, following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather. "We face many problems, but of these the most pressing are the chronic malnutrition of children, the killing of several good politicians, the fact that there has been an exponential growth in teenage pregnancies and the involvement of minors in drug trafficking. From 2019 to 2022 there has been a 518% increase in murders, and 500% of these involve young people between the ages of 15 and 19 involved in drug trafficking. The state is in great difficulty because the base is totally disconnected from representation. But ultimately it all boils down to one thing: there is a lack of education of the people. The disaster we are witnessing is the result of a lack of education that has made us lose the meaning – as the School of Community also says – of the ultimate questions. I get involved in politics because I am concerned for my friends, for my people, I feel an enormous responsibility. Being a mother, seeing my children grow up here, makes me look at all the young people of Ecuador as my own children. Without concrete commitment, even in politics, things will not change. Many solutions can be implemented, such as greater control on the streets where there are drug collection centres, trying to stop the spread of weapons among the gangs, new labour laws. But all this is not enough if it is not born out of a desire for the common good. I think there is a huge need in our country to regain the fact that politics is a vocation, and that educating people about reality – from the poorest neighbourhood to the seat of government – is the first real urgency.”

For Alexander, coordinator and educator of the Sembrar Foundation (an NGO based in Quito, AVSI’s local partner in Ecuador), education is also a significant point. That is because of his personal history and what he sees daily in his work. Growing up in Pisulì, a suburb of the capital where murders occur daily, he works closely with the poorest families and minors involved in criminal gangs. "I grew up with my five brothers and my mother," he says. "I got to know the movement at 13, when I was full of questions about the separation of my parents, our poverty, my future. I thought they were silly questions and I never talked about them with my friends. But Stefi (Stefania Famlonga, a Memor Domini and director of the Fondazione Sembra) and other women of the Memores Domini who live in Quito began to take seriously those questions. They looked at me as no one had ever before, and so I learned to value myself more, to want to study, and today to involve myself in Sembrar. I would like this to be the case for all the people who live in this city. I feel a great responsibility for the overabundance I have received in my life, and continue to receive. Some time ago with Stefi, in an area two hours from the capital, we met 15-16 year olds who had been contacted by local bosses to transport cocaine from the Colombian border to Quito. They came from wealthy families: they were not doing it because they were poor, but to feel powerful. The quest for a little power, which increases with the more harm you do and the more 'respect' you can earn, is a false attraction for so many young people. This questioned me: what are we adults missing? We do not see these young people, we leave them to their own devices, so the narcos take them away one by one. I thought about when I was a child and saw those a little older than me distributing drugs at night to the drug addicts in Pisulì. If we do not witness a meaning, how will these children know that there is something bigger than drugs waiting for them?"

Pancho agrees with his friend, these questions were also at the heart of the Lent retreat that the movement in Ecuador held a few weeks ago. "Alex is right, we are all made for great things! Only today in Ecuador everyone has forgotten that. So most of our neighbours barricade themselves in their houses, put bulletproof glass on their cars, cameras on their doors, electric fences on their gates. Instead of looking and trying to figure out how to get out of this crisis, they choose to close their eyes. And what do we propose that is more fascinating than coke, money, power? What can we propose that might ignite the hope of our young people?"

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Who educates? Isabel Maria shares this question. "If adults today no longer educate, if the universities teach that success is more important than service to the common good, if politics instils fear and the State is absent...who educates?" Alexander attempts an answer, once again drawing on his own experience. "I have a brother who has been using drugs for years and it is terrible to see what this causes in his family. No one is spared this pain. Many micro-traffickers in my area make a lot of money from drug dealing. But it often happens that, at some point, it is their children who consume the same junk that they sell. And that is the moment when they start asking themselves questions, wondering if all the evil they themselves help to spread makes sense. I have met them, I have listened to them: we have the same heart! And it also applies to those who, perhaps unaware of all the suffering they create here, today consume cocaine all over Europe. We have the same heart. A heart that screams, like Pancho's daughter or like the young people I meet in the streets, of the desire to live.”