The murder of a notorious Ecuadorian gang leader, Junior Roldán, alias "JR," in Colombia reveals how fragmentation has diminished the Choneros gang to a shell of its former self, allowing rival gangs to exploit the resulting power vacuum.
Roldán was found shot dead on May 6 near the town of Fredonia in the Colombian department of Antioquia, Ecuador’s Interior Minister Juan Zapata confirmed on May 8. While the circumstances of his death are under investigation, Colombian police stated his murder was unlikely to have been carried out by rival gangs.
Preliminary reports from Colombian military intelligence indicate that Roldán had partied for several days before his death, according to Ecuadorean police commander Fausto Salinas.
Roldán seemingly fled to Colombia after having survived two recent assassination attempts in Ecuador. After being released from prison after 13 years in February 2023, Roldán sustained injuries in a shootout in the southern city of El Triunfo in March.
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And in December, authorities arrested an alleged hit squad armed with grenades and high-caliber weaponry, outside the Guayaquil prison where Roldán had just been granted a conditional release. Hours after getting out, authorities detained and returned an armed Roldán to prison until his permanent release in February.
Members of the Choneros, a gang in which Roldán had once held a significant leadership role, blamed a rival gang, the Lobos, for these execution attempts, according to an investigation by Ecuadorean newspaper Expreso.
Founded in the 1990s, the Choneros were Ecuador’s largest criminal group, specializing in transporting cocaine from the Colombian border to various ports across Ecuador. But their power has fallen since a gang war began in early 2021 after the murder of their leader, Jorge Luis Zambrano, alias “Rasquiña.” The Choneros organization contained multiple factions or groups within the gang. Trying to take advantage of the power vacuum left by Rasquiña’s death, groups that had once been substructures of the Choneros, such as the Tiguerones and the Chone Killers, broke away from their former allies.
Other factions remained loyal. Adolfo Macías, alias "Fito," took over leadership of the Choneros, with Roldán becoming his second-in-command, as these men led the two most important remaining factions of the Choneros, respectively. Macías led the Fatales, an armed faction of the Choneros, while Roldán was the leader of Los Águilas, a separate armed substructure of the gang, allied with the Fatales.
Since his release from prison, Roldán had been progressively breaking from the Choneros, acting more independently as leader of the Águilas. His group remained a close ally of the gang, according to Arturo Torres, an Ecuadorean journalist with extensive experience covering the Choneros.
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The death of Roldán is likely to further accelerate the criminal transfer of power in Ecuador from the Choneros to their rivals, the Lobos.
Once the dominant force in Ecuador's criminal landscape, the Choneros have been progressively weakened by internal fragmentation and the deaths of hundreds of their members in prison massacres and killings across the country.
With their primary rivals in disarray, the Lobos are on the ascendancy. Two former factions of the Choneros have joined them as allies. One of those groups is the Tiguerones, who control drug trafficking routes from the Colombian border to the northern port of Esmeraldas. The other is the Chone Killers, who function as an armed wing of the Lobos around the crucial southern city of Guayaquil.
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The Lobos have also branched out more successfully into other criminal economies, including controlling lucrative illegal gold mines in the northern province of Imbabura.
There is no indication that the Choneros could successfully fight back. While the gang is still an active player in Ecuador’s drug trade, especially in Guayaquil and its original home base of Chone, they have not kept up with the Lobos. The fact that Roldán, a figure so intricately linked to the Choneros, was also beginning to distance himself from the group is further evidence of their weakness.
Macías, the Choneros’ only remaining leader, is still in prison and, according to Torres, is trying to avoid drawing attention to himself.
“The Choneros are badly fragmented. Of the old guard, the only one left alive is Fito. The Lobos have profited from this weakness of the Choneros. There is a transition to a new hegemony run by the Lobos,” he concluded.