Getting a drink in Ecuador is proving a tricky task these days. Ecuadorians can forget about having a nightcap in a bar after midnight during the week, popping to the corner store after 22.00 for a bottle of wine, drinking a beer while watching football at a stadium or a cocktail after 2.00 at weekends.
The government has also banned the sale of alcohol in any bar or store on Sundays. Ecuadorians who fancy a drink on the Sabbath now have to order food at licensed restaurants before 16.00 and then only beer, wine and chicha – a maize concoction favoured by Ecuador’s indigenous people – can be drunk.
Last month, Ecuador introduced these restrictions in a bid to stem a recent spike in murders in the capital Quito and the country’s most populous city, Guayaquil.
The tipping point was the fatal shooting of a politician’s wife at an upmarket restaurant by hitmen in May. The crime shocked Ecuador and prompted the government to take swift action.
Restricting the sale of alcohol is “part of the fight against violence”, says Ecuador’s interior minister, Gustavo Jalkh. “Just as we say machismo is linked to violence, so is alcohol,” although there was no suggestion that the hit men were emboldened by alcohol on this occasion.
And many people believe the rise in violence should also be blamed on the increasing use of Ecuador as a transit country by drug traffickers shipping cocaine to the US. Earlier this month, Ecuadorian police seized a submarine that had been built by drug smugglers in the jungle and was designed to smuggle drugs north towards the lucrative North American markets.
However, the police say that round 10 per cent of murders in Ecuador are alcohol related and that alcohol is also the primary cause of fatal road accidents. And just over half of all violent deaths in Ecuador occur during the weekend – hence the supposed logic of an alcohol ban, especially at weekends.
Not surprisingly, the booze clampdown hasn’t gone down well with bar and club owners, the tourist industry and small-shop owners who used to make the bulk of their alcohol sales after midnight.
Santiago Avila, who runs a disco in Quito, says the laws are bad for business. “We’re about 50 per cent down in alcohol sales and I’m having to cut shifts and possibly lay off staff,” he says.
Out on Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, tourists stepping off cruise liners will find it impossible to party till dawn or get a beer on a late Sunday afternoon.
The government insists the new alcohol laws are working and that crime incidents, notably domestic violence, are down 10 per cent across the country since the laws were introduced.
It’s not the first time that limiting the sale of alcohol has been introduced in Ecuador, as in other Latin American countries, as a quick fix solution to curb crime waves. But whether police can stop bootlegging and enforce the laws over the long term is another matter.