An effort to broker peace between Ecuador’s brutal drug gangs is gathering speed after leaders of both major gang alliances expressed a willingness to reduce violence.
In a June 2 video, Choneros gang leader Adolfo Macías, alias “Fito,” said he was seeking to take “the first step…towards peace talks” with the country’s other prison gangs. Appearing alongside him was Aguilas gang leader Junior Roldán, alias “JR,” who is allied with the Choneros.
The statement came amid a campaign carried out by Ecuador’s state-backed Commission for Prison Dialogue and Pacification (Comisión de Diálogo Penitenciario y Pacificación), an initiative launched in 2021 after a string of prison massacres left over 300 inmates dead.
This was the second major stride in the right direction. On May 17, the Commission had already secured a promise from a separate gang alliance. The Lobos, Tiguerones, Chone Killers and Latin Kings, all sworn enemies of the Choneros, promised to take a “first step toward voluntary pacification at the national level.”
Despite these steps, no concrete details of how such a process would take have been revealed. The Commission had said that leaders of “organizations inside Ecuador’s different detention centers” had shown willingness to begin a peace process.
However, in the most recent statement, the Choneros and Águilas bosses were clear about their aspirations. “We know this is neither a peace agreement, nor any kind of truce, much less a negotiation,” said Fito.
The Choneros leader, Fito, has strong reason to doubt the viability of such talks. In November 2021, Fito’s daughter was kidnapped and held for four days before being freed by security forces. According to Ecuador’s Plan V news site, unspecified “enemies” of Fito may have helped to secure her release. Prior to this, the Tiguerones, Chone Killers and Lobos marked a new escalation in the country’s gang wars last February by orchestrating massacres against the Choneros inside three prisons that left at least 74 inmates dead.
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Ecuador has a long history of gang truces and pacification strategies, which have shown success. The country was once a model for such negotiations, making it all the more deplorable how the situation has worsened in recent years.
In 2007, the government began a campaign of legalizing gangs, allowing them to become community groups operating on many levels to increase representation of marginalized communities, offer paths to employment and education and provide spaces for cultural activity. Over the next few years, most of the country’s big gangs took part. In 2009, the Latin Kings concluded a four-year negotiation process with the government to become a legally recognized organization.
But criminal groups also negotiated amongst themselves. In 2009, six gangs including the Latin Kings voluntarily signed a pact of nationwide non-aggression and vowed to help their members integrate into society. Signed at a sports complex in Guayaquil, this pact saw the gangs promise to recruit “good people and build a good organization,” according to the then-leader of the Latin Kings.
The results on violence rates soon became evident. Homicides dropped from over 15 per 100,000 people in 2011 to just under 6 per 100,000 in 2017.
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But can this successful initiative be replicated in the Ecuador of 2022? Not necessarily.
For starters, while the country’s homicide rate is again close to the record levels seen in the mid-2000s, the sophistication of gangs is drastically different. Ecuador’s gangs have become lynchpins of the regional and international cocaine trade, partnering up with Colombian and Mexican criminal groups. Veritable arsenals of weaponry have entered the country, with gang members often armed with automatic guns and hand grenades. Murders have reached unheard-of levels of cruelty. The country’s prisons, while long having been gang hubs, are now battlegrounds where the consequences of shifting gang allegiances are brutally felt.
The speed with which the country’s security situation has deteriorated may make this all the harder to turn around. Gangs are unlikely to lay down their weapons or break agreements made with foreign criminal groups. Even if some leaders exhort members to do so, many may be loath to give up on generous criminal income.
And more worryingly, the amount of cocaine currently going through Ecuador will always need people to transport it. The Choneros grew to be the country’s most powerful gang by transporting cocaine from the Colombian border to the port of Guayaquil. The Lobos and their allies have become serious pretenders to the throne.
Efforts to improve prison conditions and dialogue between gang leaders are welcome. But without tackling Ecuador’s broader security challenges, this campaign may not amount to much.