Drug trafficking and transnational organized crime have been blamed for deadly riots among rival gangs in Ecuador's prisons, but the carnage has more to do with how the country's gangs intersect with the drug trade.
Following February 23 riots that left 80 inmates dead, President Lenín Moreno called the violence a consequence of drug trafficking money infiltrating the country. Interior Minister Patricio Pazmino, who has since resigned, linked the riots to organized crime, citing the 22 tons of cocaine seized in the country in just the first two months of 2021.
Pazmino told legislators that "this wasn't a simple fight, but a confrontation between criminal groups that want to control illicit markets," Primicias reported.
Meanwhile, recent news investigations show that the rioters were targeting high-level members of Los Choneros, a longtime street and prison gang.
SEE ALSO: Ecuador News and Profile
Four gangs allied with Los Choneros -- Los Chone Killers, Los Lobos, Los Pipos and Los Tiguerones -- coordinated the attacks against Los Choneros' leadership, which is currently fragmented after the murder of the group’s longtime boss, Jorge Luis Zambrano, alias "Rasquiña," last December.
Two of Rasquiña’s potential successors, alias “JR” and alias “Fito,” were the initial targets of the attacks. Prison officials managed to prevent them from being killed, according to investigations by Plan V.
Following the riots, a new coalition of groups formerly loyal to Los Choneros emerged, referring to themselves as the “New Generation” (Nueva Generación). The name, reminiscent of Mexico's powerful Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), led to rumors that Mexican organized crime played a part in the riot.
InSight Crime Analysis
Drug trafficking was likely an accelerant of Ecuador's deadly prison riots, though not the direct cause as officials have claimed.
Wedged between the cocaine-producing countries of Peru and Colombia, Ecuador serves as a major drug pipeline to Europe and the United States. Unlike its neighboring countries, Ecuador does not have homegrown drug mafias. It does have gangs, but these lack the sophistication needed to operate multinational trafficking networks.
The gangs have, however, proved useful to international traffickers -- from securing drug shipments in port cities to serving as debt collectors and hired guns. The gangs also control street-level drug sales.
In recent years, Los Choneros and its longtime rival Los Lagartos have battled for control of these criminal economies across the country. In 2019, initiatives to mitigate jail violence by transferring gang leaders to distant prisons had the unwanted effect of spawning offshoot gangs throughout the penitentiary system.
All of them now want a piece of the pie -- and the banding together of Los Choneros' allies is likely a bid to wrest control from the dominant group in a moment of turmoil, as it suffers a vacuum in leadership.
After the deadly prison riots, however, a series of killings have occurred by members of Los Choneros -- a sign that the gang is reasserting its power over rival groups.
In Ecuador, violence has increased alongside drug trafficking in recent years. Authorities seized a record 128 tons of drugs in 2020 – a jump from the 82 tons confiscated in 2019. Over the same period, violent deaths increased from 1,088 to 1,358 – a trend fueled, in part, by gang violence.