Country Listing

Ecuador Table of Contents


Chapter 5. National Security


Military chief clutching a club (Bahía culture)

ALTHOUGH MODEST IN SIZE AND operational capacity, the Ecuadorian armed forces (Fuerzas Armadas--FF.AA.), have been sufficient to deal with the nation's limited external and domestic security concerns. The only outside hostilities Ecuador has experienced have been with Peru in 1941 and 1981, when the two nations engaged in brief encounters over disputed claims in the Amazon River Basin. On both occasions, the Ecuadorian army proved little match for the larger and better equipped Peruvian forces. As of 1989, the distant prospect of some renewed confrontation with Peru remained the primary justification for the purchase of modern military armaments. In the late 1980s, organized domestic terrorism was not the challenge in Ecuador that it was in neighboring Peru and Colombia. The security of the northern frontier area against drug traffickers and insurgent groups originating in Colombia was, however, a continuing problem.

The president of the republic functioned as commander in chief of the armed forces. The National Security Council (NSC) and the Joint Command, the chief of which was the senior military officer, advised the president on defense issues. A ranking military officer, either active or retired, customarily held the position of minister of national defense. The army, the dominant branch of the military with about 40,000 troops, included five infantry brigades, two jungle brigades, an armored brigade, and a special forces brigade. The navy, with two submarines and a number of missile-armed surface vessels, was capable of protecting territorial waters and communications with the Galápagos Islands. Analysts regarded the air force's three squadrons of modern fighter planes as effective in both air defense and ground support roles.

The military employed a conscription system requiring young men to serve for one year at the age of nineteen. Those able to meet stringent requirements could remain as career personnel. Officers entered by way of one of the three military academies. Advancement was based on merit, coupled with successful performance in service schools at various levels.

In the early years of Ecuadorian independence, individual military leaders frequently dominated the political system. The political involvement of the military institution, however, was a phenomenon of the twentieth century. Although the armed forces assumed power only three times--in 1925, 1963, and 1972--those were extended periods and the military's influence and interests loomed continuously over the political scene. In 1979, following seven years of reformist military rule that was only partially successful in bringing about economic modernization, the armed forces oversaw the enactment of a new constitution and voluntarily returned to the barracks. During the 1970s, however, the armed forces had nearly doubled in size, and defense spending rose accordingly. Acquiring its own business enterprises and profiting from the oil bonanza, the military assembled a considerable inventory of modern weapons, including armored vehicles, combat aircraft, and naval units. The country's mounting economic crisis and the sharp drop in oil revenues in the 1980s, on the other hand, brought an abrupt halt to the equipment modernization efforts.

Although not in sympathy with most of the civilian governments of the 1980s, the armed forces refrained from intervention. Indeed, the other service chiefs considered the revolt by the air force commander in 1986 as damaging to internal discipline and order and did not support him. In spite of the blow to the prestige and unity of the armed forces caused by this episode and the subsequent brief kidnapping of the president by air force commandos, cooperative civil-military relations remained an important ingredient in Ecuadorian political life.

Data as of 1989