The Choneros is one of Ecuador’s most prominent criminal groups, which first emerged in the late 1990s as a drug trafficking organization based in the city of Manta, a beach town on Ecuador’s Pacific coast.
Authorities originally identified the group as an armed branch of a Colombian drug cartel, with control over pacific maritime trafficking routes to Mexico and the US. However, the arrest of gang leaders in 2011, and their subsequent integration into the penitentiary system, sparked a decade of evolution for the Choneros.
Since 2011, the Choneros have evolved into one of the country’s fiercest prison gangs, with a permanent presence in penitentiaries across Ecuador, as well as operations in multiple cities, where the Choneros engage in micro-trafficking, contract killings, extortion and contraband. Ecuador’s attempts to curb gang violence in prisons accelerated the expansion of the Choneros, leading to the establishment of loyal, derivative gangs, which has enhanced their influence.
However, recent changes in the Choneros' leadership has sparked in-fighting between the group and its derivative gangs, threatening to unravel their legacy of power. In 2021, the group has been targeted by a coalition of smaller gangs.
The Choneros emerged in the 1990s in Chone, a city in Ecuador’s western province of Manabí, where the group’s founder, Jorge Busmarck Véliz España, alias “Teniente España,” was raised and began his criminal career as a small-time drug dealer. As his career advanced, Teniente España expanded his territory and operation, eventually coming to control international drug trafficking routes on the beaches of Manta, Ecuador, a Pacific coastal city in Manabí. According to Ecuadorian authorities, the Choneros served as an armed branch of a Colombian drug cartel, trafficking drugs along maritime routes to Mexico and the United States. The group also created a name for itself in cities around its stronghold of Manta, where the group carried out robberies, kidnappings, extortion, and contract killing.
In the early 2000s, the Choneros grew in strength as the group clashed with rivals to maintain control over Pacific drug trafficking routes. Confrontations with Los Queseros, an early rival, sharpened the Choneros’ use of violence, after conflicts between the groups culminated in the assassination of Teniente España’s wife – a hit ordered by the leader of Los Queseros, Carlos Vera Cedeño. Following his wife’s death, Teniente España and the Choneros unleased a war on Los Queseros, which saw dozens of Los Queseros members killed, including its leader. Cedeño’s wife was the only one spared.
In 2007, Teniente España was killed in a clash with Los Queseros in Santo Domingo, Manabí. His death sparked a series of leadership changes in the Choneros, as police operations and assassinations carried out by rival gangs unseated consecutive leaders. In the early 2010s, Jorge Luis Zambrano, alias Rasquiña, who had initially assumed command of the Choneros following the death of Teniente España, reemerged as the group’s leader, despite his capture and imprisonment in 2011. Rasquiña’s leadership initiated a decade of transition for the Choneros; as more gang members were arrested in targeted police operations, and with Rasquiña distributing orders from behind bars, the Choneros slowly morphed into a prison gang, although the group maintained its presence in the streets. This shifting dynamic also reoriented the group’s focus from international drug trafficking to micro-trafficking, contract killings, extortion, and contraband.
In 2019, the Choneros regained national attention, as escalating violence in prisons led President Lenín Moreno to declare a prison crisis and mobilize Ecuador’s military to mitigate gang wars. One facet of Ecuador’s strategy was to transfer gang leadership and violent members throughout the penitentiary system to disarticulate the hierarchical leaderships structures of prison gangs. However, in effect, the mass transfer of prisoners led to the creation of derivative gangs in Ecuador’s penitentiary system, multiplying the presence of gang wars across the country.
While the Choneros’ leadership structure was once centralized and explicitly hierarchical, with Teniente España issuing commands, in recent years, the group’s expansion across Ecuador has troubled a strictly linear chain of command.
Following President Lenín Moreno’s declaration of Ecuador’s prison crisis in May 2019, multiple efforts have been made to disarticulate prison gangs by transferring leaders and dangerous members between prisons. This distribution has resulted in the emergence of numerous derivative gangs, each of which operates under a distinct leadership structure in its respective prison and accompanying region of influence.
Proxy wars between derivate gangs and their corresponding rivals have demonstrated how these various gangs operate under the umbrella of the Choneros. However, the assassination of the Choneros' leader, Jorge Luis Zambrano, alias Rasquiña, on December 28, 2020, has triggered an internal battle between derivative gangs and the fragile leadership of the Choneros.
On February 23, 2021, in a coordinated attack across three prisons, inmates pertaining to Los Choneros' derivative gangs targeted members of Los Choneros, leaving 75 inmates dead in what was the largest prison riot in Ecuador's history. The attacks underscore the evolving nature of the Choneros' leadership structure, which, weakened by the death of Rasquiña, is now facing challenges from its own ranks.
Historically, the Choneros’ criminal economies have been concentrated in Ecuador’s western province of Manabí – specifically, in the city Manta and its surrounding areas, where the Choneros rose to prominence in the late 1990s. However, as members of the Choneros began to increasingly populate Ecuador’s penitentiary system around 2011, the group’s nascent transformation into a prison gang began to shift its illicit activities south, to the province of Guayas, where the Choneros’ leadership was jailed in the La Roca Prison of Guayaquil.
In 2019, Ecuador’s efforts to stem prison violence facilitated another shift in the Choneros’ territorial control, as gang leaders were transferred to prisons across the country to disarticulate hierarchical leadership structures in penitentiaries. However, this initiative facilitated the Choneros’ expansion, as derivate gangs arose in prisons in Esmeraldas, Cotopaxi, Guayaquil and Cuenca. Authorities now report that the Choneros exert influence in six provinces, including Manabí, Guayas, Los Ríos, El Oro, Santa Elena and Esmeraldas. The Choneros and its derivate gangs also have a presence on the streets in Daule, Naranjal, Balao, Milagro, Dúran, El Empalme and Balzar, as confirmed by numerous arrests.
The Choneros also had the ability to move cocaine shipments from the Colombian border with Ecuador to the port of Guayaquil in six hours, making them valuable partners to Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel.
Allies and Enemies
From the late 1990s until the late 2000s, the Choneros’ primary rival was Los Queseros. Prior to the arrival of Teniente España and the Choneros in Manta, Ecuador, Los Queseros controlled drug distribution in Manta’s plaza – a strategic drug trafficking location, which sparked confrontations between the two groups.
Since its inception as a prison gang, the Choneros’ chief rival has been Los Lagartos – a similarly violent gang with factions across the country. The rivalry between Los Choneros and Los Lagartos serves as Ecuador’s contemporary fault line of violence – a catalyst for rising murder rates that have plagued the country in recent years. Ongoing gang wars between the Choneros, Los Lagartos and their respective proxy gangs, made 2020 the bloodiest year on record for inmates, with prison violence claiming lives on both sides.
Prison gangs in Ecuador define themselves along this fault line, which has spawn similarly fierce rivalries among both groups’ derivate gangs across the country. In Esmeraldas, Los Choneros’ ally gang, the Tiguerones, battles with Los Lagartos’ derivate, Los Gánster Negros. In the streets of Dúran, Guayas, Los ChoneKillers – a particularly former violent branch of Los Choneros – frequently clash with the Latin Kings. In Cuenca, Los Lobos were loyal to Los Choneros and in Guacamo, Guayaquil, El Cuartel de las Feas is associated with Los Lagartos.
The Choneros have also had a longstanding relationship with the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, which used the gang's connections to rapidly move drugs from the Colombian border to the port of Guayaquil, according to the Washington Post.
However, the coordinated attacks on February 23, 2021, carried out by Los Choneros' proxy gangs against their progenitor, suggests a shifting center of power among the Los Choneros faction in Ecuador's prisons. It appears that a number of groups once loyal to the Choneros have now turned on them, including the Chone Killers, Tiguerones and Lobos. This campaign against the Choneros continued in September 2021, with the Lobos leading attacks in a prison in Guayaquil which left 118 dead.
According to Ecuadorean media reports, gangs once allied to the Choneros, including the Lobos, the Tiguerones, the Chone Killers and the Pipos have united in a new structure called New Generation (Nueva Generación) in 2021, in reference to their drug trafficking relationship with Mexico's Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG).
Los Choneros’ transformation from a drug trafficking group in Manabí to an expansive prison gang with loyal derivatives across Ecuador, marks a resurgence for the group. However, the Choneros are facing a real crisis as its most important sub-groups have rebelled and are now fighting for control of Ecuador's drug trafficking.
In recent years, Los Choneros appear to have migrated from its historic stronghold in Manta, Ecuador, to the southern province of Guayas – specifically, the capital of Guayaquil, which is the country’s drug trafficking hub. Guayaquil is also the historic stronghold of Los Lagartos, the group’s chief rival, who is engaged in an all-out war with the Choneros for control of criminal economies.
Despite repeated efforts by Ecuador’s authorities to disarticulate gangs, the bifurcated structure of the Choneros – operating in prisons, as well as on the streets – has rendered successive attempts futile, with the group’s diffuse structure proving elusive. However, as the Choneros drive up levels of violence in Ecuador, the group is sure to invite greater government scrutiny. Violence in Ecuador’s penitentiary system has entered crisis levels and the crescendo of violence in 2021 has made the Choneros synonymous with one of Ecuador's chief problems: prison violence. This internecine warfare has left over 300 prisoners dead in 2021, an escalation that Ecuador is ill-equipped to deal with. It is uncertain how the Choneros will be able to withstand such pressure.