2024January 2024

Growing Gang Presence in Ecuador

On Sunday, January 28, Ecuadorian police arrested 68 gang members who were trying to take control of a hospital in the town of Yaguachi in the province of Guayas where guns and drugs were also seized, reports France24. Hundreds of rehabilitation centers in the country have been raided and closed by police for being operated as clandestine centers by Drug gangs, officials say these hospitals lack proper patient care, says France24.

During the 25 days of the “internal armed conflict” declared by Ecuadorian president Daniel Noboa, 5,000 gang members have been detained and several tons of cocaine along with weaponry have been seized by the Ecuadorian army, according to Ecuadorian news channel Ecuavisa. It has been more than three weeks since the escape from prison of Ecuador’s most dangerous drug kingpins Adolfo Macias Villamar alias ‘Fito’ and Fabian Colon Pico alias ‘Pico’ and the assault on the TC Television station. 

According to Ecuavisa numerous images and videos circle around of the Ecuadorian army seizing control over prisons, forcing inmates to sing the country’s national anthem and paint over their symbolic murals showcasing that the state has taken control over organized crime groups’ operations. Though a staff member of the Guayaquil jail where Fito was being held reported to Ecuavisa that the army seized permanent control over the jails, the Choneros crime syndicate still exercises large control over the prison facility. The army is also unable to keep track of the number of inmates per cell. The staff member also reported that many cells in the Guayaquil jail remain either open or with no lock and that only 10 of the 35 jails in Ecuador were controlled by the army.

Since 2018 Ecuador has been struggling with increasing levels of violence as organized crime groups spread across the country and the country’s economy weakened according to Al Jazeera. A 48-year-old resident of Guayaquil, like many others, told Al Jazeera that her borough had turned upside down as a result of the growing presence of organized crime; businesses closed down, neighbors moved away, and members of criminal gangs routinely fought each other on the streets. Only a few years ago, Ecuador was one of the safest countries in Latin America and had one of the lowest levels of homicide. The nation once dubbed “an island of peace” is now experiencing the highest rates of homicide in the region, furthers Al Jazeera.

Last year in 2023, Ecuador reported 46.5 killings per every 100,000 people. Earlier last month, a new wave of violence occurred in Ecuador where prison riots overtook facilities, two of Ecuador’s most dangerous criminal leaders escaped custody, and armed gunmen stormed a live TV Broadcasting Station TC Television while holding its employees hostage. Hours after the assault on the TV broadcasting station in Ecuador’s port city of Guayaquil, President Daniel Noboa, who was inaugurated just two months ago, declared an “internal armed conflict” and sent Ecuadorian military forces to “neutralize” the more than 20 gangs present, who the president labeled as terrorist groups, according to CNN

According to InSightCrime, Ecuador’s security crisis stems from four key sources. Ecuador’s location sandwiched between the top producers of cocaine, Colombia and Peru, along with the strategic ports located in Ecuador have resulted in the country’s growing popularity as a trafficking route to the United States and Europe for transnational criminal organizations.  Over the years, Ecuador’s criminal landscape has included several local gangs. The country’s biggest criminal group, the Choneros, started in the 1990s as a drug trafficking group in the coastal city of Manabi. The Choneros were enjoying a period of expansion over the years until December 2020 when their leader Jorge Luis Zambrano, AKA ‘Rasquina,’ was murdered. Several other groups, like Los Lobos or Los Lagartos, who once operated under the command of the Choneros used the chaos as an opportunity to grab power for themselves and compete for territory in Ecuador. 

What came next after the emergence of new criminal groups was a series of prison massacres and street shootings between gangs, resulting in Ecuador recording growing homicide rates of 86.3% in 2022 and 74% during the first half of 2023, according to InSightCrime. Larger foreign organized crime groups such as Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, Jalisco Cartel New Generation, Colombia’s ex-FARC mafia, and several Eastern European mafia groups have used Ecuador to seek control over new trafficking routes. Through Ecuador’s criminal groups like the Choneros and the Lobos, large transnational crime syndicates supply them with money and weapons to exercise control over Ecuador’s strategic ports for increased trafficking routes, says InSight Crime.

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