Ecuador’s geographic location and other environmental characteristics have long provided incentives for transnational organized crime groups to exploit the country as a drug transshipment point and a logistical safe haven. Ecuador’s diverse transnational criminal landscape, dominated mainly by Colombian criminal and guerrilla groups as well as Mexican cartels, has made it a rising hotspot for organized crime.
The country’s various gangs have become increasingly sophisticated and organized. They have gained control over a wide range of criminal economies, including micro-trafficking. The gangs control many of the country’s prisons, and they have strengthened connections with major international criminal organizations by working as middlemen moving cocaine from neighboring countries through Ecuador's massive ports toward Europe, the United States, and even Australia.
Ecuador, one of South America’s smallest countries, borders the two largest cocaine producers in the world: Colombia to the north and Peru to the east and south.
Ecuador boasts an extensive western coastline along the Pacific Ocean, making it one of the primary dispatch points for the global cocaine trade. In particular, the country's port city of Guayaquil has become a crucial transshipment point for drugs from neighboring countries. In recent years, Ecuador's southern border with Peru has experienced increased violence due to criminal groups fighting to control the illegal crossings used for smuggling people and contraband, while northern Ecuador -- particularly Esmeraldas -- has been a hotbed of violence as gangs war over drug trafficking rights.
As one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, Ecuador is susceptible to an assortment of environmental crimes like illegal fishing. The illicit trade of shark fins in the Galapagos Islands is a particular problem. In addition, there is rampant wildlife trafficking in the country's eastern Amazon basin. The vast forests along Ecuador's borders with Peru and Colombia have been decimated in recent years, partly due to illegal logging. To date, around 15% of Ecuador's Amazon has been deforested. Furthermore, in the far-flung Amazonian provinces, illegal mining continues to proliferate.
Ecuador became an independent country in 1830. Its first century of existence was marked by turmoil fueled by internal conflict among elite factions.
In the post-World War II period, Ecuador alternated between periods of constitutional governance and military rule, until 1979, when the military ceded power to an elected president for the last time.
Transnational organized crime began to establish a foothold in the country during the latter half of the 20th century. From the 1970s to the 1990s, Colombia’s Medellín and Cali cartels used Ecuador as a transshipment point for trafficking drugs and as a smuggling hub for precursor chemicals needed to process the coca leaf into cocaine.
The now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), had a long presence in the country, involved in drug production and illegal mining operations along the border, though some factions of the ex-FARC mafia -- dissidents of the former group -- remain.
In the early 2000s, Ecuador experienced an increase in the presence of street gangs and associated violence. During that time, around 400 gangs operated in Guayas province, home to Guayaquil, with the Latin Kings street gang reportedly responsible for much of the violence in the city. In 2007, the government took the unprecedented step of legalizing gangs, recognizing groups like the Latin Kings as "urban youth groups.” As a result, the homicide rate in Ecuador dropped drastically.
Despite Ecuador's efforts to deal with internal criminal groups, international organized crime groups from Colombia, Mexico, and Europe have increased their presence in the country. As a result, the drug route from Colombia to Ecuador has become a mainstay of the global cocaine trade. The country's long coastline and proximity to major drug-producing countries make it a central transshipment point for cocaine.
Mexican drug trafficking organizations sourcing cocaine from Colombian criminal groups have increasingly used Ecuadorian gangs and drug traffickers as intermediaries to transport the drugs from Colombia through Ecuador and onwards to Mexico and other international destinations. As a consequence, multi-ton seizures have become frequent in Ecuador.
Amid increased drug trafficking, Ecuadorian gangs have gained significant power, becoming more organized and violent. Gang warfare has given rise to multiple prison massacres that have killed hundreds of inmates, and gangs are now using explosives to carry out attacks, assassinating officials and politicians, and participating in an ever-expanding range of criminal economies. The homicide rate surged to an all-time high in 2022. In 2017, Ecuador’s homicide rate had been one of the region's lowest.
Ecuador’s domestic crime groups have traditionally been fragmented operating as subcontractors for foreign criminal organizations, particularly Colombian and Mexican groups. Today, however, Ecuador is home to several prison and drug trafficking gangs that have vastly grown in sophistication and seize in recent years.
The Choneros, Ecuador’s premier “mega-gang,” are the largest and most sophisticated group operating in the country today. According to authorities, the gang started out as an armed wing of an unnamed Colombian drug cartel that controlled Pacific maritime trafficking routes to Mexico and the United States. Over time, however, the Choneros have transformed into Ecuador’s most formidable prison gang and now have a permanent presence in various penitentiaries and cities, engaging in illegal activities including micro-trafficking, contract killings, extortion, and contraband smuggling.
The Choneros have connections with several international groups including Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, for which it transports cocaine, according to reports. Following the murder of former leader, Jorge Luis Zambrano González, alias "Rasquiña,” in December 2020, the Choneros faced a wave of violence as other gangs tried to take advantage of their weakened state.
One of the main rivals of the Choneros is the Lagartos, another major prison gang. Clashes with the Choneros have caused outbreaks of gruesome violence inside Ecuador's penitentiaries. However, the deaths of consecutive leaders in the last two years have weakened the Lagartos, and several once-smaller gangs have emerged to rival the Lagartos’ power.
One such group is the Lobos, which has approximately 8,000 members scattered across Ecuador's prisons and various cities. The Lobos are allied with the Tiguerones and Chone Killers in a self-named group, the Cartel Nueva Generación Ecuador (Ecuador New Generation Cartel). The name, according to reports, alludes to alleged connections with Mexico's Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG), though these connections remain unproven.
Other international groups have a significant presence in Ecuador. The Oliver Sinisterra Front (Frente Oliver Sinisterra - FOS), a dissident faction of the FARC, remains active in Ecuador, as do a number of other ex-FARC mafia factions. Additionally, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), another Colombian group, has used Ecuador as a safe haven.
The Sinaloa Cartel of Mexico has successfully established contacts and routes in Ecuador, as evidenced by a series of seizures, arrests, and testimonies. According to documents presented in the US criminal case against Sinaloa leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, this expansion has been particularly significant in the port city of Guayaquil.
Albanian traffickers have also established a strong foothold in the country. Cocaine kingpins like Dritan Rexhepi have moved tons of the drug from Ecuador to Europe.
Ecuador has a national police force that is overseen by the Interior Ministry, which is the primary institution dedicated to fighting organized crime in the country. Ecuador's national police force has historically been one of Latin America's most reliable and esteemed law enforcement institutions in Latin America, but corruption scandals have grown in recent years.
Between 2013 and 2017, nearly 1,000 police officers were dismissed, including high-ranking officers. Just under half of the dismissals were tied to allegedly criminal behavior. Police involvement in criminal activities has ranged from graft to extortion to facilitating drug trafficking and even transporting drugs in police vehicles.
In 2012, the administration of then-President Rafael Correa began expanding the military’s role in public security and anti-drug trafficking operations, in part because of police corruption and his government’s strained relationship with the force.
The growing confidence of the country’s gangs led to a spike in the number of targeted killings of police officers in 2022, raising concerns about violence outpacing law enforcement capacities while bringing to light more corruption within the security forces.
For the last several years, criminal groups have successfully exploited corrupt Ecuadorian military personnel, with gangs and traffickers able to source weapons from the armed forces and police. This has strengthened the allegations of corruption against security forces.
Ecuador’s highest judicial body is the National Court of Justice, which includes a specialized chamber for criminal cases. Below this are the Constitutional Court, specialized tribunals, provincial courts and community-level peace courts responsible for conciliating local conflicts. The Attorney General’s Office is responsible for criminal investigations, including those related to organized crime.
Ecuador’s justice system underwent deep structural changes following the 2008 enactment of a new constitution, which included transitioning to an accusatorial justice system as well as overhauling the structure of its top judicial bodies and the appointment mechanisms for judges. The new system was intended to allow for greater independence from the executive branch, but there is disagreement about whether it has actually achieved that goal.
The World Justice Project’s 2022 Rule of Law Index placed Ecuador in the bottom third of countries with the most corruption and the weakest criminal justice systems in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Judicial officials have faced violence in recent years, as several judges and prosecutors have been assassinated or attacked since 2020. Politicians have faced similar attacks.
Ecuador’s penitentiary system has become one of the world's most violent. It has faced chronic overcrowding, and prison massacres ignited by warring prison gangs have led to the deaths of hundreds of inmates over only a few years.
Ecuador's strict anti-drug policy has contributed to prison overcrowding, but a corrupt system has allowed criminal governance within the penitentiary system. Gangs like the Choneros, the Lobos, and smaller groups control large segments of Ecuador's prisons. The battle for control of drug trafficking routes and micro-trafficking territory has made prisons primary locations for proxy wars between groups, and feuding has led to at least half a dozen prison massacres.
The largest prison in Ecuador is officially called Centro de Rehabilitación Social de Varones N. 1 de Guayaquil. It was opened in 1958 with space for 1,500 inmates. In 2021, the prison had 8,000 inmates crammed within its walls.