HomeNewsDedicated Hitmen - The New Modus Operandi in Ecuador
NEWS

Dedicated Hitmen - The New Modus Operandi in Ecuador

ECUADOR / 20 MAY 2021 BY ALEX PAPADOVASSILAKIS EN

A string of brazen targeted killings in Ecuador showcases how violence among the country's criminal gangs is continuing to spiral out of control.

The most recent case to grab headlines came on May 5, when four suspected hitmen dressed as police stormed into a hospital in Guayaquil and fired sixteen bullets into a female patient. The assault team had mistakenly deemed her as the target of the assassination attempt, according to La Hora, citing Ecuadorean police sources.

A week earlier, on April 28, a prominent defense lawyer, Harrison Salcedo, was gunned down in broad daylight as he drove through an intersection in northern Quito.

One of Salcedo’s clients was José Luis Zambrano, alias “Rasquiña,” the leader of Ecuador's largest gang, Los Choneros. Zambrano was shot dead at a restaurant in the city of Manta last December. Prior to his murder, Zambrano had been involved in a leadership struggle with two other members of the gang, according to Ecuadorian police.

SEE ALSO: Ecuador Confronts Unprecedented Levels of Prison Violence

And in January, popular TV host Efraín Ruales was murdered in a drive-by shooting as he was heading home in northern Guayaquil. Authorities suspect that the presenter, who was said to have received death threats for speaking out against corruption, was killed by hired gunmen.

In March, a suspect in Ruales' murder claimed that he and other individuals had been hired to scare the presenter but that the situation turned deadly, according to El Universo.

The assassinations have coincided with unprecedented levels of prison violence in Ecuador, fueled by escalating gang disputes at the start of 2021.

And in 2020, Ecuador saw the second-highest growth in homicide rates in Latin America and the Caribbean, with Guayaquil the most violent city in the country. The country closed the year with 1,357 murders, up from around 1,188 in 2019. Disputes between criminal gangs were a major contributor, both in major cities and along the Peruvian border, where groups fought for control of contraband and human smuggling. 

InSight Crime Analysis

A number of factors point to a growing fearlessness and sophistication among Ecuador’s crime groups when ordering these targeted killings.

Both Zambrano and his lawyer Salcedo were gunned down in broad daylight, and Salcedo's murder was described as a “professional job” by Ecuadorean security expert, Ricardo Camacho, who in an interview with La Hora, also noted that the assassins had chosen a site from where they could easily escape.

SEE ALSO: Proxy Gang Wars Fuel Record Homicides in Ecuador’s Prisons

To be sure, hitmen in Ecuador may spend two to three months preparing for a job, according to a former teenage assassin interviewed by La Hora. A single targeted killing can earn up to $5,000, according to the same source.

Murder-for-hire rings also reportedly have access to high-powered weapons. For instance, police found an AM15 rifle in the car of the suspects believed to have killed the hospital patient in Guayaquil. Across three provinces, authorities are investigating 60 murders committed with military-grade weapons, according to police data cited by Ecuavisa.

The increase in targeted killings appears to stem from gang tensions that had been limited to prison disputes but have now spilled into the street in spectacular fashion, as the gangs have taken to using tactical violence outside of jail.

This surge in gang killings poses a dilemma for the country's security forces. Until recently, the country had received a measure of praise for a policy that had "legalized" gangs.

In 2008, faced with rising violence and increasing membership in gangs, Ecuador allowed gangs to keep functioning as important social structures, encouraging their members to pursue job and training opportunities. This was credited as a major factor in a 67 percent drop in the homicide rate by 2016.

But that progress may now be unraveling, as gang clashes in cities like Guayaquil drive up the national murder rate. Citizen security analyst, colonel Mario Pazmiño, told Expreso that the spike in murders nationwide is linked to turf wars and disputes in prisons that house gangs like the Choneros, including a spat triggered by Zambrano's murder.

Conversely, Ecuador's Interior Minister, Gabriel Martínez, has said that the increased violent crime stems from how criminal groups are reacting to heightened arrests and seizure operations in recent years, according to Expreso.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

HOMICIDES / 14 AUG 2017

A recent report by a think tank in Mexico underscores that increased security spending has done little to temper escalating…

GENDER AND CRIME / 11 FEB 2016

Latin America is the region with the most female murders on earth, a phenomenon partly due to organized crime activities…

COLOMBIA / 14 DEC 2018

The city of Cali in Colombia is on track to see a drop in homicides for the fifth straight year,…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Unraveling the Web of Elites Connected to Organized Crime

27 JUL 2021

InSight Crime published Elites and Organized Crime in Nicaragua, a deep dive into the relationships between criminal actors and elites in that Central American nation.

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime’s Greater Focus on US-Mexico Border

20 JUL 2021

InSight Crime has decided to turn many of its investigative resources towards understanding and chronicling the criminal dynamics along the US-Mexico border.

THE ORGANIZATION

Key Arrests and Police Budget Increases Due to InSight Crime Investigations

8 JUL 2021

With Memo Fantasma’s arrest, InSight Crime has proven that our investigations can and will uncover major criminal threats in the Americas.

THE ORGANIZATION

Organized Crime’s Influence on Gender-Based Violence

30 JUN 2021

InSight Crime investigator Laura N. Ávila spoke on organized crime and gender-based violence at the launch of a research project by the United Nations Development Programme.

THE ORGANIZATION

Conversation with Paraguay Judicial Operators on PCC

24 JUN 2021

InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley formed part of a panel attended by over 500 students, all of whom work in Paraguay's judicial system.