The route from Colombia to Ecuador to Mexico is a mainstay of the global cocaine trade. Rival factions in all three countries are teaming up, which may be good for business but is leading to spiraling levels of violence in Ecuador.
On April 30, Ecuador's President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency in three coastal provinces: Esmeraldas, Guayas and Manabí. Throughout 2021 and this year, violence between drug gangs in these areas has soared.
Ecuador's northwestern province of Esmeraldas is an enclave for the drug trade, as it abuts Colombia's department of Nariño, a hub for coca plantations and cocaine production. Homicides doubled from 72 in 2020 to 146 in 2021. Murders this year have continued to spiral further out of control.
On April 17, hitmen killed seven people in the state capital, also called Esmeraldas. The gunmen were allegedly searching for members of the Tiguerones, a major prison gang. Upon not finding them, they reportedly murdered their relatives instead.
Less than 24 hours later, three people were murdered by hitmen in different neighborhoods around the city. According to authorities, these crimes were the result of a war between criminal groups over drug trafficking routes between Esmeraldas province and ports further down Ecuador’s Pacific Coast.
A recent report by Primicias indicated that the Choneros, Ecuador's largest gang, are buying and transporting cocaine through Ecuador for the Oliver Sinisterra Front (Frente Oliver Sinisterra - FOS), a dissident faction of the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
A coalition of the Choneros' enemies – made up of the Lobos, Tiguerones and Chone Killers – are also present in Esmeraldas but source their cocaine loads from the 48th Front, a rival ex-FARC faction and enemies of the Oliver Sinisterra Front, according to Primicias.
Other reports, though hard to prove, indicate that the Choneros are transporting cocaine loads exclusively for the Sinaloa Cartel whereas their rivals do so for the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG). These two cartels have been behind much of the violence in Mexico in recent years.
InSight Crime Analysis
Criminal rivalries at the heart of Colombia's and Mexico's drug wars have evolved over the years, with a repeating pattern of splintering groups, changing leaders and evolving trafficking routes. Ecuador is following down this path, with the violence in Esmeraldas emblematic of this.
The Choneros were pioneers in Ecuador's drug trade, forming partnerships with the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico and ex-FARC elements to take cocaine loads from the Colombian border to the port of Guayaquil, according to the Washington Post. The province of Esmeraldas was one of the Choneros' key early territories.
In early 2021, a number of sub-structures within the Choneros staged an open rebellion against the larger group, leading to hundreds dying in prison massacres throughout the year. That constellation of rivals is sometimes referred to as New Generation (Nueva Generación), a nod to their alleged CJNG connections.
It is no surprise that the Choneros maintain close ties to the FOS in Nariño. A veteran front of the FARC, it is likely this connection was part of those that allowed the Choneros to grow to become Ecuador's largest gang in the first place. The FOS' presence iespecially strong in the municipalities of Tumaco, Roberto Payán and Barbacoas, to the west of the department, where they have set up laboratories for processing coca paste and have set up permanent drug corridors to Ecuador, according to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz - INDEPAZ).
Meanwhile, the 48th Front has teamed up with other smaller dissident fronts to form the Border Command, arguably the strongest criminal presence along the Colombia-Ecuador border. The Border Command is allied with the Second Marquetalia, one of the largest factions seeking to reunite all dissident FARC into a single fighting force. But the Second Marquetalia has been significantly weakened due to the loss of key leaders in Colombia and Venezuela.
According to Colombian media outlet La Silla Vacía, cocaine deals between the 48th Front and its Ecuadorean partners happen at the village of Llorente, near Tumaco. This is where a bridge crosses the Mira River to Ecuador, from where the New Generation gangs pick up drug loads and transport them to Pacific ports.