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  • Omar Khan

INTENSE GANG VIOLENCE AND NEW WAR ROCK ECUADOR

Omar Khan is a MSci Physics student at UCL with an interest in international relations.


Gunmen interrupt a live broadcast at a public television station in Guayaquil, 9 January 2024. [Screenshot / Buenos Aires Times]

Under a humid twenty-five degree heat on the morning of 22 January 2024, 150 Ecuadorian troops searched a farm in Los Ríos province and discovered a colossal 22 tonnes of cocaine. The $1.1 billion haul was one of the single largest cocaine seizures in the world. Authorities assert that the drugs belong to the Fatales, a faction of the powerful Choneros. The seizure came two weeks after newly-elected President Daniel Noboa declared war on the country’s gangs amid prison riots and widespread violence against police and civilians.


Considered to be among the safest Latin American countries just a few years ago, Ecuador has witnessed a dramatic escalation in drug-related violence coupled with political instability and weak economic growth. In 2017, the homicide rate was 5 per 100,000 – by 2023, it was up to 46. Though usually overlooked in a region plagued by organised crime, Ecuador is a cocaine “super highway” and a major branch of the international drug trade. Gang violence, mainly attributed to the Lobos and Choneros, became a key issue in last year’s snap presidential election when anti-corruption candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated in August. Noboa, the 35-year-old son of Ecuador’s richest man, went on to beat an ally of ex-president Rafael Correa at the polls in October.


Noboa made security pledges centred on his Fénix plan to militarise anti-gang efforts, drawing some inspiration from President Nayib Bukele’s controversial mano dura (iron fist) tactics in El Salvador. Noboa’s party is outnumbered by the opposition in the National Assembly and he only has about 18 months before the next election (because he is completing Guillermo Lasso’s term after he resigned via muerte cruzada to avoid impeachment) so analysts doubt whether the new president can achieve his more ambitious goals. After Noboa took office at the end of November, he started preparing his anti-gang strategy which includes military deployments and segregating prison populations. At the start of this year, authorities tried and failed to move an incarcerated gang leader to a maximum-security facility – the consequences were explosive.


On 7 January 2024, Adolfo “Fito” Macías, the head of the Choneros, vanished from his prison cell. He was being held at La Regional prison in Guayaquil, the deadly port city at the heart of Ecuadorian drug trafficking. Prisons in several Latin American countries are often left to prisoners to run –  in the words of a local politician from Quito: “The [cartels] actually command the prisons.” The Choneros are one of the largest and most powerful gangs in Ecuador as are their rivals, the Lobos. A brutal conflict between the two was fought between 2020 and 2023. Some believe the Choneros are linked to the murder of Villavicencio as well as a series of vicious prison riots in recent months. In the second week of this year, after Fito escaped, Noboa declared a state of emergency, mobilising thousands of troops to look for him and supporting the military to try and take control of the chaotic prisons. Two days after Fito’s breakout, Fabricio Colón, the head of the Lobos, who was behind bars at Riobamba for conspiring to kill the attorney-general also escaped prison. 


Prompted by the state of emergency, criminals unleashed a wave of violence on 9 January. Bombs exploded in several locations. Universities, hospitals and businesses were stormed by armed men. Police and prison guards were kidnapped. Out-of-control prison riots saw more than a hundred staff taken hostage. A video shared on social media showed three kidnapped police officers with one reading a statement at gunpoint addressed to Noboa: “You declared war, you will get war…You declared a state of emergency. We declare police, civilians and soldiers to be the spoils of war.” Gang attacks killed at least 10 people. Witnesses around the world watched heavily-armed masked criminals invade a live TV news broadcast and hold the studio staff at gunpoint. 


That day, Noboa declared an “internal armed conflict” against 22 criminal groups that he described as “terrorist organisations”. While states of emergency have been in place a number of times before in Ecuador, this was the first time that armed conflict against gangs had been decreed. About a week later, violence was down and security forces said they had reasserted control over prisons. War on the gangs has seen troops descend on the streets, gang members hunted down, and an immense 36 tonnes of drugs seized as of 22 January. But the young president’s lack of an exit strategy or plan to tackle Ecuador’s enormous corruption problem concerns analysts who say that these successes are probably just short-term. Militarisation does not address the long-term causes of Ecuador’s security crisis like police corruption. Additionally, the gangs have diverse financial portfolios that go beyond drugs, including human trafficking, extortion and illegal mining, therefore they can probably outwait the government which is struggling to fund its war. An Ecuadorian academic commented: “It’s true that we’ve seen a decrease in violence, but that is normal in the first week of war. In time, it will come back with even more force.”      


Ecuador has featured on drug supply chain maps for decades (e.g. moving Peruvian coca in the 1980s), but it was the dollarisation of the economy in 2000 which turned it into an ideal money laundering hub. Colombian FARC rebels dominated Ecuador’s drug trafficking scene in the 1990s. Dollarisation coincided with the FARC moving their coca cultivation closer to the Ecuadorian border, a shift which also attracted the interest of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, then-head of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel. The 2000s also saw the Choneros (from Chone in Manabí Province) grow in strength as they competed for dominance of Pacific drug trafficking routes mainly out of the coastal city of Manta. Left-wing populist President Rafael Correa (2007-17) oversaw economic growth and poverty abatement but was also responsible for democratic backsliding and weakening the judiciary. By ending the US lease of a naval base at Manta, some argue that Correa created a blind spot for traffickers to exploit. Cocaine headed for the US can be smuggled by boat looping around the Galápagos to the shores of Costa Rica and Guatemala which usually involves co-opting fishermen and their vessels. Another option is by air typically with Cessna planes that can hold 400-700 kg of cargo and might stop in Central America on their way to Mexico. Europe-bound drugs are normally smuggled via container ships out of hubs like Guayaquil. Specialised Ecuadorian transport and dispatch networks have become well-practised at recruiting smugglers, managing corrupt contacts, procuring fuel and equipment, and hiring gunmen for security, assassinations and debt collection. 


FARC’s demobilisation in 2016 coincided with the European surge in cocaine demand. Mexican, Venezuelan and even Albanian organised crime groups descended on Guayaquil to take advantage of the power vacuum. In the 2010s, more and more Choneros members wound up behind bars converting the group into a prison gang and turning their attention away from international drug smuggling onto micro-trafficking and extortion. Their ferocious rivalry with the Cubanos and Gorras (later combined as the Lagartos) led to President Lenín Moreno (2017-21) declaring a prison crisis in 2019. A strategy to spread out the gang leaderships failed to quell the violence – instead it created an array of practically independent splinter groups that waged proxy wars across Ecuador. The Choneros splinter faction in Cuenca was called the Lobos. Three months after a truce was made with the Lagartos in September 2020, the head of the Choneros, Jorge Luis Zambrano (aka “Rasquiña”) was assassinated. The Lobos led two other Choneros derivative groups in waging a brutal conflict against their former associates that some observers say they won last year. The Choneros-Lobos war demarcated Mexican presence in Ecuador; the Choneros are linked to the Sinaloa Cartel and the Lobos-led coalition to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG). The Lobos now work with the Oliver Sinisterra Front (ex-FARC) and domestic coalition partners, the Tiguerones who run extortion in Guayaquil and the Chone Killers who terrorise the nearby city of Durán keeping drug shipments secure. 


75% of Ecuadorians said the police were unreliable in 2022 emphasising how the country’s police forces have been corrupted through years of poor investment and infiltrated by organised crime to the extent that officers have acted as bodyguards for kingpins and sold weapons to gangs. It is safe to say that authorities lost control of prisons a while ago hinting at the institutionalised corruption that plagues Ecuador and fosters criminal activity. Responding to Noboa’s declaration of war, the earlier-mentioned local Quito politician told Vox: “The armed response will only go so far when you are fighting organizations that have more money, more power, that move more quickly, than the state does.” Interestingly, Noboa actually began his presidential campaign talking about progressive socioeconomic measures to help young people at risk of gang recruitment; he proposed programmes to create jobs, ensure access to education, reform the judiciary to be rehabilitation-focused, and promote good values in schools. As he came into office, Noboa shifted to militarisation and hardline policies like setting up prison ships, reflecting how enormously popular strongman tactics like those of Bukele are in the region. 


Going forward into 2024, fighting a war against Ecuador’s gangs presents multiple challenges. Since the criminal landscape changes fast and groups are often waging turf wars against each other, cracking down on one could give another a significant gain. Moreover, gangs have a diverse range of income streams though their main source – drug trafficking – is still lucrative as Ecuador is inundated with cocaine. Analysts also point to flawed militarised approaches in Mexico, Honduras and Colombia. Evidently, Ecuador needs a comprehensive series of long-term reforms to not only tackle systemic corruption but also the poverty and underfunding which leads to corruption. Until then, it seems somewhat inevitable that the level of gang violence will rise again sometime soon.         


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