Made in China, Exported to the World: The Surveillance State

Mr. Correa’s ministers turned to China. In two months, details to install a Chinese-made technology system were ironed out with the help of military attachés from the Chinese Embassy in Quito, according to a person familiar with the process and to publicly available documents from Ecuador’s comptroller. Ecuadorean officials traveled again to Beijing to scope out the system, which featured technology made by the parent company of the state-backed C.E.I.E.C.

By February 2011, with guarantees of state funding from the attachés, Ecuador signed a deal with no public bidding process. The country got a Chinese-designed surveillance system financed by Chinese loans. In exchange, Ecuador provided one of its main exports, oil. The money for the cameras and computing flowed straight to C.E.I.E.C. and Huawei.

“The money always ends up going back to China,” Ms. Roldós said.

It became a pattern. In exchange for credit facilities that totaled more than $19 billion, Ecuador signed away large portions of its oil reserves. A surge of Chinese-built infrastructure projects, including hydroelectric dams and refineries, followed.

By comparison, ECU-911 was a small line item.

With an initial sticker price of more than $200 million, construction started near Guayaquil, a booming coastal city where crime rates are high, Mr. Robayo said. Over the next four years, the system expanded across Ecuador.

Cameras were hung anywhere that provided a good view. Operation centers were set up. Top Ecuadorean officials traveled to China for training, and Chinese engineers visited to teach their Ecuadorean counterparts how to work the system.

The activity attracted attention from Ecuador’s neighbors. Venezuelan officials came to see the system, according to a 2013 account from an Ecuadorean official working on the project. In an effort led by the onetime head of intelligence for Hugo Chávez, Venezuela then sprang for a larger version of the system, with a goal of adding 30,000 cameras. Bolivia followed.

Beijing’s ambitions go much further than the abilities those countries bought. Today, the police across China gather material from tens of millions of cameras, and billions of records of travel, internet use and business activities, to keep tabs on citizens. The national watch list of would-be criminals and potential political agitators includes 20 million to 30 million people — more than Ecuador’s population of 16 million.