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.
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.
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.