Authorities in Ecuador are investigating whether two partially dismantled networks of loan sharks -- one with Colombian members -- are also involved in hired assassination, a structure that would bear similarities to debt collection offices used by some of Colombia's most notorious criminals.
On August 31, authorities in Guayaquil arrested 18 people, and found arms and drugs in one of eleven residences they searched, reported El Comercio. The prosecutor heading the case said one of those arrested was linked to at least 15 homicide accusations, and officials are investigating whether the suspects are also involved in "sicariato," or hired assassination.
The action followed the August 14 arrests of 38 people in Guayaquil. In one search, authorities found cards they said contained information of debtors, El Comercio reported.
Of those arrested in the August 14 operation, 30 suspects were Colombian and eight Ecuadorean. Interior Minister Jose Serrano called it the "first international group dedicated to illegal loans in Ecuador," reported AFP; but authorities are still investigating whether the network was foreign-run.
One merchant operating in the La Trinitaria sector of Guayaquil said that most merchants had to use these kinds of loan services, which charge exorbitant interest rates, because they are unable to get bank loans.
There were 98 complaints of loan sharking and extortion in Guayaquil filed with the Guayas state Attorney General's Office in the first six months of 2013, according to El Comercio. Arrests were also made recently for this crime in Manabi, further north and inland.
InSight Crime Analysis
The networks dismantled by Ecuadorean authorities have characteristics of Colombian debt collection offices or "oficinas de cobro." These oficinas, as they are known, often work on behalf of more sophisticated criminal organizations and run crime in a certain area, collecting debt and extortion payments, and offering hired assassination and mediation services.
The large number of Colombians involved in the network busted on August 14 makes it quite possible that the operation was Colombian-run. Colombian criminals have been known to use Ecuador as a base of operations in the past. As of 2012, the Rastrojos were thought to control many of the country's international drug routes, and a Rastrojos leader was recently arrested in the port city of Manta.
SEE ALSO: Rastrojos Profile
In 2011, a leader of a Colombian gang known as Cordillera, which began as an "oficina de cobro," was arrested in Guayaquil. The group was thought to have exported the Colombian model -- running local micro-trafficking and assassination services -- to Quito.