How Ecuador became mired in a ‘state of war’ with drug gangs

The newscast began like any other. Jorge Rendón, a veteran broadcaster at Ecuador’s state-owned TC Televisión in the bustling port city of Guayaquil, was running through the day’s stories with his co-anchor.

Then, with cameras rolling and the feed broadcast live to the nation, masked gunmen burst into the studio, brandishing high-calibre rifles and grenades. Some of the crew were forced to lie prone on the floor, others sat with their hands bound. Elsewhere in the building, audible on-air before the feed went down, shots were fired.

“It was terrifying, a moment of chaos and extreme tension,” Rendón tells the Financial Times. “They tried to make us speak out against the government, against the police, and against the world . . . it was an afternoon of chaos.”

A police task force retook the studio soon after, arresting 13 intruders and liberating the hostages, but across the country similarly harrowing scenes were playing out, triggered by the escape of jailed drug-lord Adolfo “Fito” Macías from his cell in the nearby Regional prison on January 7. 

In the days since Fito — leader of one of the country’s most prominent gangs, Los Choneros — sprung jail, bedlam has engulfed Ecuador. Over 158 prison guards and staff have been taken hostage by inmates in seven prisons, vehicles and buildings around the country have been set ablaze, and at least 15 people, including police offers, have been murdered. 

Gunmen storm a studio inside Ecuador's TC television station in Guayaquil during a live broadcast
Three men stand outside a TV studio building
Journalists José Luis Calderón, Jorge Rendón and Stalin Baquerizo outside the TC Televisión studios in Guayaquil, where they had been held hostage by gang members © Reuters

President Daniel Noboa, a 36-year-old US-educated scion of a banana empire who took office in November promising a tough line on crime, on Wednesday said that Ecuador was “at war” with drug-traffickers, a day after signing a decree making them military targets. He also declared a nationwide two-month state of emergency, including nightly curfews.

The harrowing events of this week brought home a stark reality for many Ecuadoreans: that their country, once a relatively peaceful tourist destination sandwiched between bigger and more violent neighbours, is on track to become the latest Latin American country crippled by narco-trafficking.

Criminals maraud with impunity, corruption often goes unanswered, and politicians are co-opted, threatened, or worse — Fernando Villavicencio, a former investigative journalist and anti-corruption candidate for president, was assassinated last August.

GM130124_24X Ecuador map_WEB

According to the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (Flacso) in Quito, Ecuador’s homicide rate has increased nine-fold since 2017, when it was one of the lowest of the region, from five murders per 100,000 inhabitants to 46 last year, surpassing Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil.

At the epicentre of the bloodletting are the country’s overcrowded prisons, which have become bases for criminal gangs. Over 400 inmates have been murdered in the last four years, while riots and jailbreaks are common.

Changing global demand for cocaine is one of the drivers of the crisis, with markets in Europe, Asia, and Brazil growing as consumption in the US wanes. That has led powerful cartels from Mexico to muscle in on Ecuador’s lightly policed shipping ports.

Ecuador’s descent into chaos has alarmed the region, especially neighbours Colombia and Peru. On Tuesday, the latter declared a state of emergency on its northern border with Ecuador and deployed an unspecified number of troops there. Colombia, which shares a porous border with Ecuador in its south, expressed concern about the security situation.

People trek through a muddy jungle
Ecuadoreans are fleeing north in record numbers, with Panama reporting that they are now the second-largest nationality after Venezuelans to traverse the Darién Gap — a dangerous tract of jungle © Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images

The crisis could have dramatic repercussions even further afield. Ecuadoreans are fleeing north in record numbers, with Panama reporting that they are now the second-largest nationality after Venezuelans to traverse the Darién Gap — a dangerous tract of jungle between Colombia and Panama that many migrants cross en route to the US.

Border security is likely to be a hot-button issue in the US election later this year. The Biden administration signalled it was paying close attention; Brian Nichols, the US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, condemned the violence and said that Washington was “ready to provide assistance”. A high-level delegation, including the leader of the US Southern Command, will visit Ecuador in coming weeks.

Ecuadoreans themselves are left to wonder how things came to such a painful pass. “This is a country that has always lived in peace,” says Rendón. “Lamentably that peace has been shattered and there is a lot of responsibility that goes around various administrations.”

The origins of Ecuador’s crime wave can be traced back in part to the policies of president Rafael Correa, a charismatic and combative leftist-nationalist who came to power in 2007 amid the so-called Pink Tide that saw socialists win office across Latin America.

During a decade as president, Correa brought the murder rate down to historic lows through a mixture of social spending that reduced poverty and boosted beat policing, and a policy allowing gangs to become legally recognised community groups by laying down their weapons.

But at the same time, he made Ecuadorean waters more attractive to smugglers by shutting a US naval base in the port city of Manta in the name of national sovereignty. The privatisation of ports along the Pacific further led to lax security on shipments.

A wanted poster for José Adolfo Macías Villamar, leader of the Los Choneros gang
A wanted poster for Adolfo ‘Fito’ Macías, leader of the Los Choneros gang © Ecuador’s Ministry of Interior/AP

“Correa did not believe it was primarily Ecuador’s responsibility as a transit country to police the flow of drugs in and out of its borders,” says Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “But that’s not to say he’s the only figure with a share of the blame for the situation Ecuador is in.”

When Lenín Moreno, formerly Correa’s vice-president, took over in 2017, he used a referendum to overhaul the state apparatus built by his onetime mentor, disbanding the justice ministry but with it losing oversight of the country’s overcrowded prisons, Freeman says.

Meanwhile in Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) — a Marxist guerrilla group that had long monopolised drug trafficking routes in northern Ecuador — agreed to demobilise in 2016, leaving behind fresh territory for local gangs to contest. 

An armoured personnel carrier drives down a city street
Soldiers patrol the streets of Quito after President Daniel Noboa declared a nationwide two-month state of emergency © Karen Toro/Reuters

And when the Covid-19 pandemic hit Ecuador in early 2020, ravaging the economies and public health of coastal port cities in particular, it rendered thousands of youths jobless and created ideal recruits for gangs surging in power and influence.

Membership in those gangs, including Los Choneros and Los Lobos, whose leader Fabricio Colón also escaped jail this week, is today estimated by some experts to number up to 50,000 people. With the agreements of Mexico’s Sinaloa and Nuevo Jalisco cartels, these Ecuadorean gangs have made themselves an integral part of the global narcotics supply chain.

They have also diversified, making money from extortion, kidnapping and illegal mining. Crucially, they have begun co-opting parts of the state, starting with its jails. Earlier this week government spokesperson Roberto Izurieta admitted that the prison system has “completely failed”.

As the gangs have expanded, security has deteriorated. Fernando Carrión, a security expert with Flacso, says they have become more brutal in their displays of violence since 2017. “In the last six years we’ve seen it get more violent, and today we see mutilations and dead bodies hanging from bridges.”

Line chart of Homicides per 100,000 population showing Ecuador’s murder rate has overtaken other Latin American countries

Moreno’s successor Guillermo Lasso, a self-made banking tycoon, was equally unable to halt the growing stranglehold of gangs when he took office in 2021. Failing to advance his agenda with an opposition party that shared power and grappling with social unrest and frequent prison riots, he dissolved congress in May last year to avoid an impeachment process he regarded as politically motivated, triggering snap elections.

It was that election cycle, featuring the shooting of Villavicencio by seven Colombian hitmen as he left a campaign rally — that dramatically laid bare how far Ecuador had fallen into the snare of the gangs.  

Villavicencio had previously reported being threatened by drug-trafficking groups including the Choneros, though authorities have not yet connected them to the assassination.

“Ecuador is practically submerged in organised crime,” Villavicencio told the FT in an interview three months before his death, promising to “declare war” on criminal economies if elected. “The war would combine a head-on fight in the streets, controlling the prisons, and isolating all the bosses of drug-trafficking groups.”

Today, it is Noboa who as president has declared a war on Ecuador’s gangs. In the decree signed on Tuesday, he declared that the country was living through an “internal armed conflict”, and designated 22 gangs — including Los Choneros and Los Lobos — as terrorist organisations.

“We are at war and we cannot back down in the face of these terrorist groups,” he said in an interview with local media on Wednesday.

Noboa is seeking to hold a referendum that would allow for the extradition of citizens accused of crimes abroad and the seizure of suspects’ assets, though the vote still requires approval from the country’s constitutional court.

A man in a blue suit sits in an ornate chair and is flanked by a soldier and the Ecuadorean flag
President Noboa has declared war on Ecuador’s gangs © Carlos Silva/Ecuador Presidency/Reuters

“Ecuador is living through an unprecedented crisis, and the government’s response to it is also unprecedented,” says Sebastián Hurtado, who runs Prófitas, a Quito-based political risk consultancy, in reference to Noboa’s declaration. “It provides Noboa with a political opportunity to push through reforms and win support for the referendum.”

Since Tuesday’s violence, the streets of Guayaquil have been quiet. Many shops remain shut, while schools are closed and classes are given virtually. Rubbish continues to pile up as refuse collectors, like most public sector workers, are ordered to stay home. In the sweltering city centre, which usually teems with commerce, soldiers patrol outside municipal buildings.

Locals say tensions are high. “No one is shopping right now,” says Johanna Guanoluisa, one of the few market vendors to have opened up shop in the central Bahia district of Guayaquil. “We’re scared because we know that if we open up, we could be robbed.”

Such fears are justified by sporadic outbreaks of violence across the country. In the Amazonian town of Coca, arsonists set a nightclub ablaze, killing two and injuring nine. Five bombings took place in Quito on Wednesday, causing property damage but no casualties. 

An aerial view of a prison complex
Turi prison in Cuenca. The country’s overcrowded jails have become bases for criminal gangs, with more than 158 prison guards and staff held hostage by inmates across seven prisons © AFP via Getty Images

Unions representing prison workers, over 158 of whom remain hostages in their own jails, have blasted the government for not providing information about their wellbeing as unverified videos circulate on social media of guards seemingly being tortured.

Rear Admiral Jaime Vela, the commander of the armed forces, told reporters on Wednesday evening that none of the hostages had been killed and that 329 people, mostly gang members, have been arrested since the state of emergency began on Monday.

Meanwhile, Noboa’s tough rhetoric, reminiscent of El Salvador’s popular strongman leader Nayib Bukele — whose clampdown on gangs has won support across Latin America despite concerns of authoritarianism — seems to be resonating with Ecuadoreans tired of their country’s insecurity.

Noboa’s plan to wage war on the “terrorists” is “the only way we can get rid of all this crime,” says Mariuxi Paredes, a shopkeeper in downtown Guayaquil. “A dead dog won’t bite.”

Additional reporting by Christine Murray in Mexico City

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