Fatal combination: Ecuador’s complex struggle against organized crime
The surge in Ecuador's homicide rate, skyrocketing
from 6 to over 46.5 murders per 100,000 people within a year, underscores a
pressing concern. This alarming spike is attributed to the proliferation of
criminal gangs with links to transnational organized crime, specially from
Mexican drug cartels. These entities are not only destabilizing public security
but also contributing to a growing apprehension across the Western Hemisphere.
On 9 January, a group of gangs who belong to
the criminal band “Los Tiguerones” took over live a major television station in
Guayaquil, the new hotspot of the Latin American narco-terror. Days later, the
prosecutor Cesar Suarez, who was investigating the incident, was shot to death.
Additionally, the biggest gang leader - “Fito” Macías – from Choneros – escaped
from a maximum-security prison and prison uprisings multiplied. Against this
background, Ecuador’s Daniel Noboa – a 36-year-old center-right leader who was
sworn in as the country’s president in November 2023 – declared officially the
state of “internal armed conflict” and “state of exception” in the country.
Hence, “organized crime became a non-state belligerent actor”, while declaring
22 drug trafficking gangs as terrorist groups, among them Aguilas, Águilas
Killer, AK47, Caballeros Oscuros, Chone Killer, Choneros, Corvicheros, Cuartel
de las Feas, Cubanos, Fatales, Gánster, Kater Piler, Lagartos, Latin Kings,
Lobos, Los p.27, Los Tiburones, Mafia 18, Mafia Trébol, Patrones, R7 and Tiguerones.
Ecuador is not the only Latin American
country that has experienced intense problems with criminal gangs and
transnational organized crime. Since the region became a “zone of (interstate)
peace” – especially in the Southern Cone, the
main concern moved to non-traditional threats originating from domestic
challenges – such as pandillas (gangs), armed internal groups and
criminal clans – and transnational illicit activities, especially those related
to narcotraffic and drug cartels. In this regard, the zone of peace resembles a
violent one if we consider the non-state threats and the internal violence
rates, especially in the Andean subregion.
In Colombia, illicit mega organizations such
as the Cali Cartel and the Medellin Cartel, led by Pablo Escobar, dominated the
landscape in the 1990s. As the Colombian government intensified its anti-drug
trafficking efforts, many of these cartels fell, giving rise to new smaller
organizations called Bacrim (Bandas Criminales) and shifting the epicenter of
activity to Mexico with cartels such as the Sinaloa (SC), Jalisco New Generation
(Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) and the Zetas, among others. Thanks to
Mexico's extensive border with the United States (U.S.) and institutional
corruption, these cartels were transformed into the main illicit holdings in
the region controlling with local allies the bulk of drug trafficking routes to
the U.S. market from Perú northward. It seemed Ecuador was out of the criminal
equation but changes in the drug trafficking industry and the structural
weaknesses of the Ecuadorian state favored the crime explosion.
The geographic curse
Ecuador finds itself entangled in a complex
web of geographical challenges that significantly influence its security. The
nation grapples with a structural issue rooted in its location, sandwiched
between the world's two largest cocaine-producing countries, Colombia and Peru.
This strategic positioning exposes Ecuador to the dynamics of the global
cocaine market, making it a crucial player in the illicit maritime trade
routes. The proximity to Colombia's coca leaf production zones along the border
and the prevalence of over 100 illegal crossings in the southern border with
Peru exacerbate the challenge.
These porous entry points become conduits for the influx of weapons,
ammunition, explosives, and illicit mining products into Ecuador.
Alarmingly, an estimated one-third of
Colombia's cocaine production utilizes Ecuador's ports for smuggling routes
destined for the U.S. and Europe. The Amazon route, often terminating in
Brazil, and the Pacific route, with Guayaquil emerging as a hub, serve as major
conduits for drug trafficking operations.
According to Hurtado, the largest pacific city “has become a major
transshipment point for cocaine produced in neighboring Colombia and Peru”,
where most of the maritime drug connection takes place through banana ships.
Among the most dangerous cities such as Durán, Daule and Samborondón are those
close to Guayaquil. Additionally, the former General Commander of the
Ecuadorian Air Force (FAE), Mauricio Campuzano, acknowledged the existence of more
than 2,000 “uncontrolled” illegal landing strips in the country.
Ecuador could overcome the internal strife
that Colombia and Peru have with their still standing albeit weak guerrillas,
but the structural changes in the drug trafficking regional actors and
industry, in addition to logistical benefits, puts the small nation in the
radar. A key process has been the role of the Mexican cartels that not only
displaced the Colombian ones, but also established presence and privileged ties
with local partners. The final cocaine distribution is always carried out by
Mexican cartels from Central America to the U.S., but the influence of cartels
such as Jalisco New Generation and Sinaloa in Ecuador is transmitted
through the confrontation of local gangs in their territory, to take full
control of the transport of cocaine coming from Colombia and/or Peru.
However, the infighting between these two
cartels is a major export of violence abroad. As Vanda Felbab-Brown underlines:
“until the Mexican cartels’ war arrived, Ecuador had escaped the intense crime
violence patterns of many Latin American countries. The violence dynamics are
analogous to those in Colombia: Local gang and criminal groups seek to defect
from one Mexican cartel to another or, allied with one cartel, seek to take
over the territory belonging to the proxies of the rival cartel”.
This is the case in Ecuador with Choneros’ alignment with the Sinaloa Cartel
versus Los Lobos which are close to the CJNG Cartel. However, the violence also
has its own local drivers beyond the Cartel’s interest to export cocaine to the
(Many) Reasons for criminal violence
Ecuador’s criminal violence is rooted in a
complex combination of domestic factors that have exacerbated the situation in
the last years. One of the key elements is the chronic inequality and lack of
opportunities, especially in the low-income population. Unfavorable economic
conditions have generated high levels of poverty – around 27% in 2023
– and inequality, creating a breeding ground for involvement in illicit
activities such as drug trafficking or other illegal activities. The Covid-19 pandemic
has further aggravated the situation, generating economic and social crises
that have exacerbated existing tensions. Restrictions negatively affected
vulnerable communities, creating fertile ground for involvement in criminal
activities as an alternative source of income. The
growing reach of cocaine trafficking has also generated an internal consumption
boom, thus leading to increased competition and territorial conflicts for
selling drugs, contributing to a sustained cycle of violence. According to a
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report, Ecuador has the
highest number of drug treatment services provided in the region.
In addition, corruption in the Ecuadorian
prison system has allowed the unrestricted operation of criminal organizations
within correctional facilities. Collusion between prison officials and members
of organized crime has facilitated the coordination of illicit activities from
within prison institutions, amplifying the influence and power of the pandillas.
Since the capture of the main gangs' big bosses, Los Choneros and Los Lobos
have chosen the prisons as the command center for their illicit activities, blurring
the boundary between confinement and the public sphere, but also transformed
the prisons into a power struggle arena between gangs. According to the
Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights of Ecuador (CDH), more than
400 inmates died in prisons between 2020 and 2022 and many of these deaths are
related to pandilla clashing.
Ecuador’s political volatility also plays a
crucial role. Frequent changes in administration and political disputes have
weakened the government's ability to implement effective security and drug
control policies. The lack of continuity in government strategies has created
loopholes that are ably exploited by the cartels to expand their operations and
strengthen their presence in the country. The threats and violence are also
reaching public figures. Last year, Presidential Candidate Fernando
Villavicencio was killed during a campaign event in Quito and city mayor Agustín
Intriago was shot dead.
The main actors of the criminal violence are pandillas
(both in the street and prison), criminal networks linked to drug trafficking,
and mafia structures with possible state connections.
Among the most prominent gangs are the Choneros and the Lobos, but the
situation is complicated by the presence of 25 identified criminal
organizations in the country, each with organized criminal groups estimated to
number more than 30,000 members.
The linkage of these organizations with Mexican cartels such as Sinaloa and CJNG
has changed the dynamics of crime. As
Carrión Mena argues, local groups that “became part of the central command
holdings changed the form of payment for services and activities provided by
local groups. They moved from payment in dollars to payment in drugs, producing
immediate structural effects: the strengthening of local criminal structures
(more organized and more organizations), the violent dispute for the national
market (number of murders) and greater local consumption (80-100 tons), has
made Ecuador one of the countries with the highest per capita consumption in
Inter-gang disputes, especially between the
Choneros and Los Lobos, have exacerbated the violence. The Lobos have
consolidated their power in the highlands and within the prison system, thus
challenging the strongest Choneros. In addition, confrontations between the
state and these gangs have led to a constant struggle for territorial control
among them and even within gangs. A tragic milestone in this scenario was the
coordinated attack on three prisons on February 23, 2021, where members of the
Choneros attacked rival inmates, resulting in the largest prison riot in
Ecuador's history, with 75 killed. This event was the result of a breakpoint –
the killing of the former leader Jorge Luis Zambrano González
"Rasquiña" in 2020. Since then, Los Choneros lost supremacy as the
leading gang and had to face the uprising of former allies like Los Tiguerones,
Chone Killers or even Los Lobos, who is currently the main gang in conflict.
The criminal map is one of fragmentation, which makes crisis management even
more complicated in the long term.
response: relentless and without a clear future
Ecuador finds itself grappling with a crisis
reminiscent of the heightened violence associated with Pablo Escobar's era in
Colombia, albeit with numerous criminal gangs instead of one. While security
challenges are not novel in Ecuador, the current scenario presents an
unparalleled challenge. Former President Lasso's declaration of a
"war" against narco-trafficking and narco-terrorism has yet to yield
clear results. Noboa's acknowledgment of an "internal armed conflict"
garnered widespread political support, including from political adversaries
like former President Rafael Correa. However, such declarations alone may not
address the root causes of the issue.
In response to the escalating situation, the
current president has conferred extraordinary powers upon the military,
enabling their involvement in prisons and collaboration with the National
Police. Additionally, the decree provides a legal framework to combat terrorist
gang organizations, such as Los Choneros and Los Lobos. While these measures
signify a robust governmental response, the complexity of the problem demands a
comprehensive strategy; one that addresses not only the immediate security
concerns but also the socio-economic and institutional factors contributing to
the surge in criminal violence, from addressing the inefficient and corrupt
prison system to improving opportunities for the younger population.
Mar Pichel, “Cómo
Ecuador pasó de ser país de tránsito a un centro de distribución de la droga en
América Latina (y qué papel tienen los carteles mexicanos)” (How Ecuador
went from being a transit country to a drug distribution center in Latin
America (and what role do Mexican cartels play)), 2021, https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-58829554.
Carrión, “Apreciación Estratégica 2023: Influencia del Tráfico de Cocaína y
otros delitos conexos en Ecuador” (Strategic Appreciation 2023: Influence
of Cocaine Trafficking and other related crimes in Ecuador), p. 64,