Los 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 Los Choneros.
Since 2011, Los 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 Los Choneros engage in micro-trafficking, contract killings, extortion and contraband. Ecuador’s attempts to curb gang violence in prisons accelerated the expansion of Los Choneros, leading to the establishment of loyal, derivative gangs, which has multiplied Los Choneros’ influence.
However, recent changes in Los Choneros’ leadership has sparked in-fighting between the group and its derivative gangs, threatening to unravel Los Choneros’ legacy of power.
Los 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, Los 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, Los 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 Los 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 Los 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 Los 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 Los 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 Los Choneros; as more gang members were arrested in targeted police operations, and with Rasquiña distributing orders from behind bars, Los 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, Los 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 Los 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 Los Choneros. However, the assassination of Los Choneros’ leader, Jorge Luis Zambrano, alias Rasquiña, on December 28, 2020, has triggered an internal battle between derivative gangs and the fragile leadership of Los 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 Los Choneros’ leadership structure, which, weakened by the death of Rasquiña, is now facing challenges from its own ranks.
Historically, Los Choneros’ criminal economies have been concentrated in Ecuador’s western province of Manabí – specifically, in the city Manta and its surrounding areas, where Los Choneros rose to prominence in the late 1990s. However, as members of Los 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 Los Choneros’ leadership was jailed in the La Roca Prison of Guayaquil.
In 2019, Ecuador’s efforts to stem prison violence facilitated another shift in Los Choneros’ territorial control, as gang leaders were transferred to prisons across the country to disarticulate hierarchical leadership structures in penitentiaries. However, this initiative facilitated Los Choneros’ expansion, as derivate gangs arose in prisons in Esmeraldas, Cotopaxi, Guayaquil and Cuenca. Authorities now report that Los Choneros exert influence in six provinces, including Manabí, Guayas, Los Ríos, El Oro, Santa Elena and Esmeraldas. Los 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.
Allies and Enemies
From the late 1990s until the late 2000s, Los Choneros’ primary rival was Los Queseros. Prior to the arrival of Teniente España and Los 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, Los 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 Los 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, Los Tiguerones, battles with Los Lagartos’ derivate, Los Gánster Negros. In the streets of Dúran, Guayas, Los ChoneKillers – a particularly violent branch of Los Choneros – frequently clash with the Latin Kings. In Cuenca, Los Lobos are loyal to Los Choneros and in Guacamo, Guayaquil, El Cuartel de las feas is associated with Los Lagartos.
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.
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, as Los Choneros grow in strength and derivate groups vie for internal control, clashes with rival groups are likely to continue – a trend Ecuador’s authorities are desperate to prevent.
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 Los Choneros for control of criminal economies.
Despite repeated efforts by Ecuador’s authorities to disarticulate gangs, the bifurcated structure of Los 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 Los 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 on February 23, 2021, which marked Ecuador’s largest prison riot ever, has made “Los Choneros” synonymous with one of Ecuador’s chief problems: prison violence.
The implementation of new strategies to curb prison violence and disarticulate gangs by Ecuador’s government, could pose a significant challenge to Los Choneros, especially as conflict with once-loyal derivative gangs threatens the group’s fragile leadership structure. Los Choneros’ internal strife is also likely to invite attacks from their rivals, Los Lagartos, who will look to capitalize on its rival’s weakness to take control of criminal economies.