Members of the National Police inspect the site of an explosion, which the Ecuadorean government attributes to organized crime, in southern Guayaquil, Ecuador, on August 14, 2022. Marcos PIN / AFP
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 16 minutes

Ecuador’s High Tide of Drug Violence

Ecuador’s proximity to major cocaine producers, dollarised economy and corruptible state institutions, as well as COVID-19’s devastating impact, have turned the country into Latin America’s latest hotbed of drug trafficking and other violent crime.

Events in Ecuador’s most populous city, Guayaquil, have taken a dark and lethal turn. Widely known by an evocative moniker, the “pearl of the Pacific”, the port town has become the country’s murder capital, a place where criminal violence is almost routine. In a particularly gruesome display on 14 August, gunfire and an explosion – what authorities described as a “declaration of war on the state” by organised crime – killed five people and injured twenty more in the city. According to the local press, Ecuador tallied no fewer than 145 bomb attacks in the year to mid-August; half of them occurred in Guayaquil.

In an open letter addressed to President Guillermo Lasso, Guayaquil’s mayor wrote that “criminal gangs have become a state within a state”. According to local media, the 14 August blast is connected to a hit that took place in the city earlier that month, with one revenge killing following another in a seemingly interminable battle for supremacy among various criminal organisations.

Though Ecuador has seen killing sprees before, it previously had no notable history of guerrilla or cartel activity; it has also in recent years been seen as one of the safer countries in Latin America. That, however, appears to have changed. Today, Ecuador has become the latest country to suffer a vicious escalation in violent crime. Homicides have risen at a startling rate, increasing by 180 per cent from 2020 to 2021, and reaching a total of 3,538 this year until the end of October - already the highest tally ever recorded in the country. Police attribute 80 per cent of these murders to clashes among criminal groups vying to control the distribution and export of drugs, primarily cocaine. As gang warfare has worsened, headline-grabbing acts of brutality have littered the news: not just car bombs but decapitations, hanging of corpses from bridges and drones dropping explosives on prisons. Jailhouse violence of all kinds has soared. The most recent data show that prison murders jumped from 46 in 2020 to over 300 in 2021.

As of 17 August, Ecuador had recorded 2,593 homicides in 2022 compared to 2,471 in all of 2021. Around 38 per cent of the murders occurred in Guayaquil.

Life and Death in Guasmo

Guasmo, a working-class neighbourhood in southern Guayaquil, sits close to the seaport, which handles 85 per cent of Ecuador’s non-oil exports. Subdivided by invisible borders drawn by organised crime, it is subject to incessant violence. The criminal groups are battling for turf near the port, which they reportedly use to hide cocaine in cargo containers leaving for Europe and the U.S. On 3 August, police found a mass grave in the neighbourhood with the remains of six people. By September, 1,000 murders had been recorded in Guayaquil and the neighbouring cantons of Durán and Samborondón – all part of the Guayas province – eclipsing the total for the whole of the previous year, and far above the 384 recorded in 2020. “Here people will die like this; everything has been corrupted”, a Guasmo resident told Crisis Group. 

Life is harrowing for many in Guasmo. Laura (not her real name), a mother of four who lives in the area, wistfully observed in an interview that she has forbidden her younger children from playing in the park for fear of stray bullets and from leaving the house after 6pm. Her older children, who have graduated from high school, cannot find work, and are at risk of becoming members of the gangs that control her neighbourhood. In tears, she spoke of her worry that her children could become addicted to drugs. They are cheap and easy to buy, she said. They are not necessarily of good quality, though – another resident complained that the drugs available in Ecuador are “leftovers. … The United States and Europe get the best batches”.

Residents of the neighbourhood have little access to education and lack health-care facilities or reliable water supply. Parents in Guasmo told Crisis Group that public schools ask for “contributions” for school supplies, including toilet paper. When they take their children to the hospital, there are no medicines; if surgery is needed, the family has to purchase items needed for the operation.

Jobs are also scarce. One of Laura’s sons, David (not his real name), had recently turned 19 when Crisis Group spoke with him. He said his friends are either dead or in jail, though a few had just been released. David had worked as a day labourer, painting or picking up garbage, but admitted that it is hard to avoid the lure of both using and dealing narcotics when they are so plentiful in the area. A journalist investigating the uptick of violence in Guayaquil, who has been tracking violent crime in the city for the past five years, confirmed that the social impact of drug trafficking is devastating. Poverty and addiction feed one another as dealers get paid in cocaine, while the stress and boredom of unemployment spurs substance abuse. For $2, David explained, one can buy a small bag of cocaine; young people can be seen snorting the powder openly in a Guasmo park. Nearby, dealers sell 25g of cocaine for $60 and a pound (about half a kilogram) of “crispy” (marijuana mixed with cocaine) for $360. Those of David’s friends who are fresh out of prison continue to steal or sell drugs because, in their words, “There is simply no other way to survive”.

The livelihoods of many families ... depend on the drug business.

The livelihoods of many families in this and other neighbourhoods depend on the drug business. Most street dealers are men. But behind the scenes, women are involved, too, packing cocaine in plastic bags and even selling small quantities. Residents say the police are either too scared to patrol or bought off. They claim the gang controlling a particularly rough part of Guasmo, known as Los Lagartos, has bribed security personnel, adding that some officers have actually joined the gang. The police deny these accusations.

Perhaps nothing has more clearly demonstrated the feeble reach of state authorities in poor areas of Guayaquil than the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the virus rampaged through the city in March and April 2020, the world saw horrifying images of corpses in makeshift shrouds kept in homes or left on the streets as the surge of deaths overwhelmed the local health system, emergency phone lines and funeral parlours. Deluged by the sheer number of dead, the national government brought in a businessman to handle the disposal of bodies. Across the country as a whole, the pandemic’s economic impact was also severe, according to a survey by the Central University of Ecuador, with close to 30 per cent of households having a member who lost a job in the first half of 2020.

For Laura and her family, the pandemic was ruinous, pushing them deeper into poverty. David attempted to find a job as a driver, but he could not find one, lamenting that he was discriminated against because of his social background, tattoos and history of drug abuse. Tragically, just two months after Crisis Group met him, David was shot three times in his neighbourhood and died. According to an acquaintance, he was operating as a gang member at the time of his interview with Crisis Group and was targeted for killing a member of a rival outfit.

A New Drug Hub

Only a few years ago, Ecuador’s government declared something close to victory in its fight to curb violent crime. The president at the time, left-leaning populist Rafael Correa, as well as officials from his government, claimed credit for a drop in violence, attributing it to a number of reforms: the creation of a Ministry of Justice, the expansion of community policing, and doubling of the budget for public security and crime prevention. At the same time, the authorities made efforts to legalise (ie, treat as “cultural associations” rather than criminal groups) the country’s largest gangs, such as the Latin Kings. It provided resources to support young adult gang members looking for “life-changing” alternatives – a policy that, according to the Inter-American Development Bank, helped reduce violence and transform the social capital of the gang”. The homicide rate in Ecuador dropped from around fifteen killings per 100,000 people in 2011 – close to Brazil’s rate – to about five in 2017.

Despite the success of these policies, criminal organisations were also invigorated over roughly the same period. Ecuador’s prison population rose from 11,000 in 2009 to almost 40,000 in 2021 as drug trafficking in particular underwent spectacular growth. According to a local news outlet, 27 per cent of all inmates, and 50 per cent of the women, are serving time for drug possession or sales. Many of the inmates arrested for non-violent drug-related offences proved easy targets for forcible recruitment by organised crime. In July, Human Rights Watch reported that “many detainees, including those held in pre-trial detention or sentenced for minor crimes, are forced to work with organised crime groups to protect their own physical integrity or to access basic necessities, such as mattresses, bedding and health supplies”.

Against this backdrop, after years of sustained declines in violence, homicides started to rise again in 2018, when in the span of several months a car bomb outside a police station on the border with Colombia injured more than ten officers; security forces on both sides of the border were ambushed with mortars and automatic weapons; a bomb killed three marines; and two local journalists and their driver were kidnapped and murdered. The government affirmed that the attacks had been carried out by FARC dissidents – ie, individuals formerly affiliated with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the guerrilla force that had demobilised in 2017. Members of a group of dissidents have since admitted responsibility for killing the journalists.

At the same time that the ex-FARC fighters were causing mayhem along the Ecuador-Colombia border, other criminal networks were flexing their muscles elsewhere. Ecuador has long been a transit hub for illicit drugs, which largely explains why the jail population rose despite Correa’s reforms. But changing patterns of criminal activity as well as booming coca and cocaine production in Colombia have given the country a far more prominent role in the narcotic supply chain, deepening its involvement in production, refining, storage and transport. Ecuador’s dollarised economy – the country made the U.S. dollar its national currency in 2000 in a bid to stall a sharp devaluation of the sucre – and weak financial controls simultaneously made it a hotspot for laundering illicit profits. A former high-level politician in Guayaquil told Crisis Group that the relationship between legal and illegal business, rooted in what he called “lucrative permissiveness”, started over a decade ago. To underline the point, he pointed to numerous legitimate firms that he claimed are sustained by drug money.

Behind Ecuador’s rising star in the global cocaine market lurks Mexican organised crime, which tends to sub-contract parts of the supply chain.

Behind Ecuador’s rising star in the global cocaine market lurks Mexican organised crime, which tends to sub-contract parts of the supply chain. According to a Quito-based political analyst, Mexican criminal groups negotiate drug shipments with Colombian outfits, such as the Frente Oliver Sinisterra (the FARC dissident outfit behind the killings of the journalists in 2018) or Columna Móvil Urías Rondón, which send coca paste south to Ecuador. Local criminal groups refine the paste in laboratories and ship it in containers carrying food from Guayaquil to the U.S. and Europe. In August, authorities seized 3.5 tonnes of cocaine worth $127 million packed with bananas bound for Britain and the Netherlands. Ecuadorians and Colombians have also been arrested for transporting cocaine in fishing boats and other vessels. An Ecuadorian was among those captured aboard a “narco-submarine” found to be carrying 2.2 tonnes of cocaine, with a reported value of $55 million, in waters close to El Salvador.

Despite warning signs, Quito was slow to address the mounting wave of criminal violence, and at times took steps that hobbled its capacity to respond. Part of the reason no doubt relates to economics: the state is burdened by stubborn fiscal deficits, and facing constant scrutiny from the International Monetary Fund, its budget is under persistent strain. Security experts told Crisis Group that the violence at the Colombian-Ecuadorian border in 2018 should have triggered reforms to address the surge in illicit trafficking. Instead, former President Lenin Moreno eliminated the justice ministry and reduced the prison budget by 30 per cent, all part of a government plan to cut public spending.

Over the same period, violence that had traditionally been limited to trafficking hubs has undergone the sort of escalation in scale and significance seen previously in Colombia, Brazil, Mexico or Guatemala, and akin to that under way in Paraguay. High-level officials are now targeted, as are civilians allegedly involved in drug trafficking or money laundering for rival groups. Ecuadorian public prosecutor Luz Marina Delgado was shot and killed in May in her car, allegedly by Venezuelan and Colombian hit men. Four years earlier, Delgado had issued a warrant for the wife of Washington “Gerald” Prado Álava – who is sometimes referred to as “Ecuador’s Pablo Escobar”. Many observers connect the two events, though no charges have been filed. Linked to efforts to bribe and murder prosecutors and investigators, Prado was the first Ecuadorian to be extradited from Colombia to the U.S., on charges of smuggling 250 tonnes of cocaine. Since May, two more prosecutors have been assassinated.  

 The Prison Dilemma

If drug trafficking has upended the lives of people in places like Guasmo, jails have become the sites where organised crime plots its battles for control of the drug trade in Ecuador. According to local authorities, around 11,000 of today’s 32,000 inmates – a slight drop-off from 2021 due to an early release program aimed at reducing overcrowding – belong to a criminal outfit.

One prison in Guayaquil ... has twelve wings, each reportedly under the protection of a different criminal organisation.

Prisons have become the centre of operations for these groups, aided by what the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights described in 2022 as “unprecedented levels of violence and corruption [that] respond to the abandonment of the penitentiary system by the state”. One prison in Guayaquil, known as La Peni, has twelve wings, each reportedly under the protection of a different criminal organisation. A lawyer close to a renowned criminal outfit explained that jails serve as safe havens for mafia bosses who surround themselves with henchmen and feel protected from the turf wars outside the prison walls. Yet these same places seethe with danger – with gangs seemingly treating them as staging grounds for grisly acts of violence meant to send a message to a wide audience.

The first such case came in 2019, when William “Cubano” Humberto Poveda, leader of the eponymous Cubanos gang, was decapitated and incinerated; his head was displayed inside the jail, and videos circulated of prisoners playing soccer with it. So began a litany of similar atrocities, generally linked together in a cycle of revenge killings, while the situation inside Ecuador’s jails grew increasingly explosive. The country saw its bloodiest prison riot on 28 September 2021, when at least 119 inmates were killed, six of them beheaded, as rival gangs armed with guns and grenades battled to control a prison in Guayaquil. Close to 400 inmates have been killed since February 2021.

The sway of criminal groups over jails and the extreme violence that flares up inside them are linked in many ways. A lawyer who previously worked at a Guayaquil prison told Crisis Group that inmates smuggle in weapons, drugs, cell phones and other contraband hidden in food or other deliveries with the complicity of police and prison guards. Media reports have indicated that prison directors in some facilities warn gang leaders before carrying out “random” searches. Inmates sometimes hand over machetes, knives and pistols for seizure to deflect closer inspection that might reveal a more intimidating arsenal featuring machine guns and grenades. According to a special commission created in 2021 by the Lasso administration to assess the country’s prisons, criminal groups have spent $1 million on smuggling weapons inside and have bribed police officers to buy arms; the report concluded that at least 10 per cent of the prison system authorities are receiving monthly payments from organised crime.

The power of jailed gang leaders extends well beyond prison walls. According to a former government official, as soon as new wardens assume their jobs, the crime bosses summon them to “kiss the hand”. Gang leaders also decide from their cells how the battles in Guasmo and other Guayaquil neighbourhoods should unfold. A young man who was born and raised in Guasmo, and who has family and friends in one of Guayaquil’s most notorious jails, said these leaders decide who should die, when and where to distribute drugs, and how to mark off territory to keep it from competitors. Criminal groups even supply water and food to prisons – a fact the government is aware of, according to a National Assembly member.

For those who have no protection or resources, prisons are desperate places. A criminal lawyer discussed with Crisis Group the case of 31-year-old Erick, who had completed his sentence for drug possession, but had to remain in jail as his family could not afford to skip work to initiate his release, and lacked the financial means to hire an attorney to help. Erick was killed in 2021 in a prison riot, waiting for his freedom. Several lawyers agreed that detention beyond the end of a sentence is not uncommon among poorer inmates. If the inmate lacks the funds necessary to bribe officers, the release process can last between three and six months. A lawyer who has defended several gang members commented that judges tend to seek monetary compensation from inmates asking for leniency in court. “If you have money, you might leave prison alive”, a former prisoner, jailed for failing to pay child support, observed scornfully.

LGBTQ+ inmates are particularly vulnerable. In 2021, Helen Maldonado was murdered during one of the bloodiest prison riots in Ecuador’s history. A trans woman serving a 30-month sentence for non-violent drug possession, Helen was housed in the men’s facility, despite the fact that her ID card reflected her chosen female gender. Helen and other inmates were tortured and killed by unknown assailants, according to the NGO Vivir Libre. Seven months later, the government returned her remains to her family in a black plastic bag.

According to Vivir Libre there are around 280 LGBTQ+ inmates, who are targets of regular, severe violence and harassment by both prison guards and inmates. Odalys, a trans woman who served five years in a men’s prison, observed that trans women often have no choice but to trade sex for protection, food, access to medical attention, cell phones and other necessities. She described how survival for minority groups inside the prison often depends on their ability to earn the protection of criminal leaders, usually referred to as “uncles”.

The State Response

Residents of Guasmo with whom Crisis Group spoke agreed almost unanimously on what they felt was the ideal response to the bane of violent crime in Ecuador: they wanted a strongman to take control. “We need someone like the guy from Central America” was a common refrain. Here they were referring to El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, who has waged an unstinting “iron fist” campaign of mass arrests of suspected gang members, part of his general disregard for democratic norms.

But there is little to suggest that this strategy would succeed, in part because Quito has not shied away from strong-arm tactics. Following the 14 August blast, President Lasso declared the sixth state of emergency since taking office in 2021, in order to boost military deployments in Guayaquil. It had little if any impact: the murder rate remains unchanged since then, with Ecuador on track to surpass the regional average for violent deaths by the end of 2022.

Against this backdrop, analysts are highlighting the security forces’ shortcomings in addressing the crime wave. In addition to the military, the police force’s investigative capacities are reportedly below par, and a revolving cast of senior police commanders has hurt the continuity of security policies. Accusations of corruption in the security forces are also likely to undermine Lasso’s efforts to seek additional U.S. funds to launch his proposed Plan Ecuador, an initiative aimed at attracting U.S. and European Union funds and law enforcement assistance to strengthen the country’s police and military. The U.S. embassy in Quito continues to revoke visas for public security officers and officials in the judicial system – including judges – on the basis of alleged corruption, bribery and drug trafficking. A reconfiguration of transborder drug supply chains and a series of institutional failings, above all in the prison system, have made Ecuador a favoured destination for criminal groups to traffic drugs and launder profits.

But that does not make the uptick in violence irreversible. For one, the criminal scene in Ecuador is not yet as formidable as it is in neighbouring countries. Local criminal groups still lack clear hierarchies, loyalty mechanisms and the sort of business acumen that their counterparts display elsewhere in the region, above all Colombia and Mexico, where illegal outfits have branched out into numerous new lines of business.

Furthermore, the government appears to be making real efforts to respond to the challenge. Created in August, the National Secretariat of Public and State Security is now charged with designing a plan to address the institutional flaws described above. It would do well to look at the experiences of Latin American neighbours that have previously fought similar battles with varying degrees of success, and make the achievement of higher standards of criminal investigation a priority. In addition, Ecuador should ideally pursue the sort of comprehensive penal system reforms undertaken with international support in Guatemala before 2019 rather than seeking short-term results by embracing the use of military personnel and techniques in law enforcement. An area that certainly needs strengthening is access to rehabilitation for younger inmates. 

In parallel, the state, in partnership with the private sector and donors, should provide a way for young people in neighbourhoods such as Guasmo to avoid the conveyor belt to crime and hard drug use. Creating legal employment opportunities and a path out of hopelessness – building on some of what the state did a decade ago with a previous generation of gangs – is essential if Guayaquil and other communities across Ecuador wish to end the wave of crime and violence that has disrupted their peace.

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