A series of assassinations on Ecuador’s southern border with Peru have been attributed to gang members fighting for control of the illegal crossings by which both people and contraband are smuggled, emphasizing the danger of hard borders in incentivizing competitive criminal violence.
In early October, Alexander Rodolfo Palacios Abril, a local gang member known as “Roba Gallinas,” was shot dead while manning an illegal border crossing in Huaquillas canton, in Ecuador’s province of El Oro, according to news website Diario Correo.
His murder rapidly escalated into a series of retaliatory killings. On October 13, his two suspected assassins were gunned down. On October 20, their suspected killer was in turn gunned down. And on November 2, two more people were found dead, one after a public shooting and the other in a ditch bearing signs of torture. A week later, on November 9, a failed assassination attempt led to one man being wounded.
Roba Gallinas is reported to have been a leading member of the “Injertos del Norte” gang, a group that apparently first emerged around 2013 and has since been linked to vehicle thefts, extortion, kidnapping, microtrafficking and murder-for-hire in southern Ecuador, northern Peru and along the Peru-Chile border. However, police have repeatedly claimed the band was dismantled, suggesting the gang may be more a loosely organized criminal network. One report also claims it maintains a rivalry with “Los Pollos,” a gang also present in Huaquillas.
Illegal crossings have long been present in Huaquillas, a smuggling hotspot. Yet the movement of contraband has increased during the pandemic due to the March border shutdown, with operators charging anywhere between $1 to $50, depending on quantity and type of merchandise. In September, Ecuadorean National Police seized 100 kilograms of sodium bicarbonate, used to produce “crack” cocaine, while an October operation dismantled a network smuggling guns through the area.
The governor of El Oro, Danny Gámez, told El Universo almost 100 illegal paths had been destroyed in Huaquillas this year, which police claim were mostly operated by two feuding groups. In response, provincial authorities have militarized the Huaquillas border, with Ecuador’s armed forces tweeting on November 9 that the 1st Motorized Infantry Battalion Constitution was present “to prevent illegal entry by foreign migrants and smuggled merchandise."
InSight Crime Analysis
When smuggling economies begin to generate competitive violence, militarizing borders and cracking down on illegal crossings has been a common response across Latin America, from the Brazil-Paraguay and Venezuela-Colombia border to the Honduras-El Salvador and Mexico-Guatemala one.
The Ecuador-Peru border has witnessed similar responses, such as in 2017, when Ecuador began building a controversial border wall to stop the flow of contraband, or in January 2019 when four homicides in Huaquillas led Ecuadorean provincial authorities to deploy the military there.
This approach has not been effective though, with organized crime operating undeterred throughout the pandemic. Local fishermen have complained of intimidation and theft this summer, while criminals on scooters were accused of committing robberies and extorting local businesses. The recent killings were all carried out by gunmen on scooters, suggesting the involvement of the same groups.
Furthermore, Huaquillas has long been an arms trafficking hotspot for Colombia bound guns. In February 2019, a particularly sophisticated arms trafficking ring was dismantled that sourced US and Mexican guns from Peru, smuggled them through El Oro province and then sold them to Colombian groups. Peruvian cocaine and Ecuadorean fuel also flow across the border via Huaquillas, the former controlled directly by organized crime and the latter paying crime groups a tax in order to operate.
Border crackdowns, however, may inadvertently exacerbate problems. Huaquillas and Peru’s Aguas Verdes are interdependent communities reliant on cross-border trade, with the Zarumilla river dividing them only spanning some six meters wide in parts. Hence, smuggling has long been an informal trade method to avoid taxes, with vendors bringing Ecuadorean fuel and medicine to Peru and Peruvian textiles and home appliances to Ecuador. Illegal crossings are often just long planks.
Hence, border militarization risks criminalizing one of the few remaining sources of income and pushing financially desperate businesses and individuals further into the hands of local gangs, while not stopping the flow of criminal goods. In fact, by criminalizing cross-border smuggling, authorities gift that economy to organized crime, as seen most notably at the Mexico-US border.
Larger capital and greater tolerance for risk allow criminal groups to monopolize the market and accrue heightened profits when crackdown-caused scarcity raises the price of common goods. Finally, by reducing the number of illegal crossings, authorities increase the value of each remaining one, further incentivizing violence.