The discovery of two bodies hanging from a bridge in Ecuador may be the starkest sign yet of the country’s accelerated spiral into violence, including copying the worst excesses seen in Mexico.
On February 14, two bodies were left hanging from a pedestrian bridge over a major thoroughfare in the city of Durán, next to Ecuador’s southern port city of Guayaquil. According to a national police press conference, the two men had been missing since January 11 and suggested the killings might be linked to the recent seizure of over seven tons in Guayaquil.
One police source told the newspaper, El Universo, that a rival gang had kidnapped the two men as part of a fight for control of drug trafficking routes through the port of Guayaquil. Police later found an abandoned van, suspected to be the vehicle in which the men were carried, containing rope and adhesive tape.
The two corpses were followed by another macabre display of violence. On February 15, a bag containing a man's head was discovered near the entrance to Ecuador's Puerto Bolívar port terminal, south of Guayaquil. Authorities said that the decapitation was connected to the seizure of 100 kilograms of cocaine in containers destined for Belgium, El Universo reported.
Guayaquil has been at the epicenter of Ecuador’s shocking rise in violence in 2021. By February 14, the country’s Zone 8, an administrative area covering Guayaquil and Durán, had seen 159 homicides in 2022.
These crimes have been growing increasingly gruesome. Five decapitated bodies have been found in the two cities since October. And last year, most of the 320 inmates killed inside Ecuadorean prisons were in Guayaquil’s Guayas 1 jail.
Police sources told Ecuadorean news outlet, Extra, that one hypothesis behind the killings was that they were linked to an ongoing rivalry between the Águilas, a faction of the sizeable Choneros gang, and the Chone Killers.
Much of the violence in 2021 was sparked by a bloody feud between the Choneros, once Ecuador’s largest gang, and a constellation of rivals, many of which were once part of the Choneros. This rivalry has escalated rapidly in recent years as more and more cocaine has flowed through Ecuador, often leaving the port of Guayaquil to go to foreign markets, especially the United States and Europe.
Ecuadorean gangs are entrusted with moving the cocaine through the country by larger criminal groups selling the cocaine from Colombia and Mexican groups receiving it. The Choneros, for example, were long a point of contact for Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, while its rivals are apparently contracted by the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG).
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These killings are the latest evidence that Ecuador, long less violent than its cocaine-producing neighbors, is catching up alarmingly quickly.
While the actual presence of Mexican cartels in Ecuador has been somewhat overblown, their financial and material support for Ecuadorean groups have certainly ramped up the violence.
Since first appearing as a cartel tactic in 2008, bodies hanging from bridges have gone from an aberration to a weekly occurrence in Mexico. According to Alejandro Hope, a Mexican security analyst, they send a clear message of defiance.
“Making an execution public is a sign of vast impunity and that you do not fear the consequences,” he told Univision.
The same holds true in Ecuador. Despite Guayaquil having been the hub of national violence for several years, authorities have not seemed to make any consistent progress in stopping the bloodshed. In 2021, police made repeated incursions into the city’s poorer areas, often near the port, with armored cars, helicopters and even military, but the violence has continued.
What’s more, the area around Guayaquil has become divided into gang-controlled territories, which has only worsened the violence. In Durán, the Chone Killers have been blamed for much of the violence and for creating a climate of fear among residents. Led by Benjamín Camacho, alias “Ben 10,” the Chone Killers were an armed wing of the Choneros until they turned on the gang in 2021 with a slew of other factions.
While there is a vast difference in terms of manpower and influence, there are parallels between the story of the Chone Killers and the infamous Zetas in Mexico. Created as a group of enforcers for Mexico’s Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo), the Zetas turned on their masters in the 2000s and began a brutal campaign of terror. They were behind much of the violent innovations that worsened Mexico’s drug war, the legacy of which is still devastating the country today.
While it is uncertain if the Chone Killers are behind the bodies on the bridge, like their Mexican cousins, they are playing an outsized role in Ecuador’s continuing descent into madness.