Made up of multiple smaller gangs with common allies and enemies, the Lagartos are one of Ecuador’s prolific prison gangs, whose rivalry with the Choneros has spurned unprecedented levels of violence in Ecuador’s streets and penitentiary system.
The rivalry between the Lagartos and the Choneros is at the core of Ecuador’s recent rise in criminal violence and yet, the genesis of the rivalry derives from the history of two gangs within the Lagartos’ ranks: the Cubanos and the Gorras.
The Cubanos and the Gorras both originated in Guasmo Sur, Guayaquil, Ecuador, where the gangs’ leaders – William Poveda Salazar, alias "El Cubano," and Giovanny Mantilla Ceballos, alias "Gorras" – rose to prominence through microtrafficking and contract killings. While the Cubanos and the Gorras collaborated on occasion, their alliance under the Lagartos name only came about in 2019, when they joined forces to combat a common enemy: the Choneros. Ecuador’s most prominent gang, the Choneros have waged an interminable war against rivals in Ecuador’s penitentiary system for control of criminal economies.
Following the death of consecutive leaders, the Lagartos have been weakened, no longer posing the same threat that once drew the attention and ire of the Choneros. But with the Choneros now under attack by a number of other rivals, the Lagartos may be regrouping.
The name "Lagartos” derives from a gang that has operated in Ecuador’s penitentiary system for at least ten years, serving primarily as hired guns to carry out assassinations for larger groups. As such, the Lagartos remained under the radar, maintaining neutrality, while the Choneros and the Cubanos battled for control of criminal economies in Ecuador’s penitentiary system.
One man would become crucial to the rise of the Lagartos. Giovanny Mantilla Ceballos, alias "Gorras," controlled micro-trafficking in Guayaquil, where he similarly originated in Guasmo Sur and had a criminal background as a member of the gang, the Latin Kings, a gang originated in the US by Puerto Rican and Mexican immigrants, and established in Ecuador in the 1990s.
While serving his prison sentence, El Cubano began recruiting inmates to join his ranks to challenge the outsized power of the Choneros, who had been clashing with the Cubanos in the penitentiary system since 2009.
For the next decade, the Cubanos and the Choneros battled for control of criminal economies in Ecuador’s prisons, with casualties on both sides perpetuating the rivalry, including the deaths of El Cubano’s brothers, Kléber, alias Metralla, and Walter, alias Caimán.
In 2018, Gorras was arrested and imprisoned on charges of organized delinquency. Because of the longstanding rivalry that he had had with the Choneros, Gorras aligned himself with the Lagartos gang for protection, according to prison guards who spoke with El Universo.
This proved to be the right move. In response to the spiraling violence provoked by the Cubanos and the Choneros in Ecuador’s penitentiary systems, President Lenín Moreno declared a prison crisis in May 2019 and deployed the military to mitigate gang wars. One facet of Moreno’s strategy was to transfer violent gang members and leaders to prisons across the country. However, this had the unwanted consequence of multiplying prison violence by leading to the creation of derivate gangs, which have been waging proxy wars across the country.
Days after the declaration of Ecuador’s prison crisis, the Choneros attacked members of the Gorras in the Litoral Penitentiary, leaving six inmates dead, including Ricardo Mantilla, the brother of Gorras. Less than two weeks later, the Choneros struck again, assassinating El Cubano in gruesome fashion and, ostensibly, dealing a death knell to its chief rival.
In the wake of El Cubano’s death, Gorras assumed command, and merged the Gorras, the Cubanos and the Lagartos under the latter’s name to challenge the dominance of the Choneros.
Under Gorras’ leadership, the stronger iteration of the Lagartos was born and waged a vicious war against the Choneros in Ecuador’s streets and penitentiary system, sparking epidemic levels of violence, as the two gangs competed for control of street-level drug sales.
However, the unexpected death of Gorras to COVID-19 in June 2020, splintered the Lagartos, leaving the distinct gangs comprising the group without a central leader to coordinate action.
Taking advantage of the Lagartos’ weakness, the Choneros attacked the gang in August 2020, attempting to take control of the prison sector pertaining to the group in the Litoral Penitentiary – a siege on their home turf. As a result, on September 5, 2020, a fraction of Lagartos laid down their weapons and negotiated a truce with the Choneros, abandoning their post in the prison under the conditions that they would be transferred to a secure prison block, isolating them from further attacks.
As an amalgamation of distinct gangs, the Lagartos have historically relied on the uniting force of a central leader. Prior to the united iteration of the Lagartos, the gang functioned as an allied group of inmates without a centralized leader. Rather, the group operated as a collective of hired guns, with members carrying out hits for stronger gangs, such as the Choneros and the Cubanos, while maintaining neutrality.
Following the death of El Cubano in June 2019, Gorras assumed leadership of the coalition integrated by the Cubanos, the Gorras and the Lagartos, uniting the three gangs to fend off the Choneros, who were waging a war to eliminate rivals in the penitentiary system.
The Lagartos reached its apex of power under the leadership of Gorras, challenging the Choneros for control of contraband and micro-trafficking in Ecuador’s prisons, as well as in the streets, where their rivalry seeded violence in local communities and drove levels of violence to unprecedented levels in Ecuador.
However, with the death of Gorras to COVID-19 in June 2020, the Lagartos began to fragment, as the distinct gangs comprising the group no longer had a central leader to unite their criminal structures. According to Ecuadorian authorities, Carlos Mantilla, alias "Choclo," assumed leadership of the Lagartos in the wake of his brother’s death.
The Lagartos’ criminal economies are concentrated in Guayaquil where both the Cubanos and the Gorras once controlled microtrafficking. The unification of these two gangs under the “Lagartos” name solidified the gang’s dominance of criminal economies in the area and permitted the gang to stave off incursions by the Choneros. Moreover, the Litoral Penitentiary in Guayaquil contains the majority of the Lagartos’ members, including its current leader, Choclo.
The gang also maintains a presence in penitentiaries across the country, such as el Centro de Privación de Libertad (CPL) Azuay N.º 1, El Turi in Cuenca; el Centro de Rehabilitación Social (CRS) Masculino Guayas N.º 4, in Guayaquil; and the Penitenciaria el Litoral and El Centro de Rehabilitación Social Regional Sierra Centro Norte Cotopaxi, en Latacunga.
The Lagartos provide assassination and security services to local and international traffickers in exchange for cash, products to sell, or the opportunity to invest in international shipments. "Gorras" was widely known for leading the provision of these services in Guayaquil, its main area of operations, but now that he is dead, the Choneros could take the opportunity to strengthen their presence in the city.
Allies and Enemies
The Lagartos' primary rival is the Choneros. In recent years, the rivalry between the two groups has come to define Ecuador’s contemporary fault-line of violence, with each gang’s proxy groups fighting for control of criminal economies in prisons across the country.
The proxy gangs aligned with the Lagartos are the Gángster Negros in Esmeraldas, the Latin Kings in Durán, and the Cuartel de las Feas in Guasmo, while the Tiguerones, the Lobos, and Chone Killers were once loyal to the Choneros.
It is worth noting that an internal dispute inside the Choneros for leadership of the group began February 2021 in a riot across several prisons that left at least 78 prisoners dead. While the Lagartos and its allies were not directly involved in this event, the bloodshed that has continued ever since may result in shifting alliances within Ecuador's loosely defined prison gangs.
The Lagartos' truce with the Choneros, brokered in September 2020 in exchange for total security within the Litoral Penitentiary, showed how the Lagartos were significantly weakened by the death of their leader, Gorras, in June 2020. Despite the leadership of Gorras’ brother, Choclo, the Lagartos appear to lack the internal organization necessary to project a unified front.
But with the Choneros forced to fend off a rebellion from some of its proxy gangs, the Lagartos may have a chance to reorganize.