Ecuador's descent into violence followed a common path: more cocaine led to more cash and more weapons for the gangs. The government, already distracted by COVID-19, could not contain the rising conflict, especially in the country's overcrowded prison system. The difference was that in Ecuador in 2021, this happened faster than anywhere else in the Americas.
The beginning of this spiral can be traced back to December 28, 2020, when Jorge Luis Zambrano González was enjoying a drink in a shopping mall cafeteria with his wife and daughter in Manta, a coastal city in central Ecuador. The man known as Rasquiña had been released early from jail six months prior after spending almost eight years behind bars for drug trafficking crimes.
Since 2011 and, despite being in prison for much of it, Rasquiña had overseen the growth of Ecuador’s largest and most sophisticated drug trafficking gang, the Choneros. From their birth as a microtrafficking gang in the western city of Chone that gave them their name, the Choneros had grown to control the transport of numerous cocaine shipments coming from Colombia to Ecuador’s Pacific ports.
As the group’s profile rose, it became a common target. Numerous members were arrested, including Rasquiña. However, from there, they transitioned into a prison gang. Using their cells as fortified headquarters, they controlled actions on the streets. The jails also became a recruitment ground for new members. By 2020, the Choneros had grown to an estimated 12,000 members inside and outside of prisons.
But Rasquiña’s ambition expanded beyond controlling cocaine shipments. The Choneros’ activities stretched to contract killings, extortion, weapons trafficking and more.
When he was released in June 2020, Rasquiña knew he was a wanted man. There were pretenders to the Choneros throne. He had three bodyguards that day in Manta. They travelled to the mall in a separate car. Two of them protected his family, and one stayed with him.
It wasn’t enough. At a moment when Rasquiña was alone with his bodyguard, an assassin struck and shot him three times.
Four days later, 2020 gave way to 2021, a year in which the Choneros unraveled. And so did Ecuador.
Fragmentation of the Gangs
The Choneros were enviable partners for those looking to take advantage of Ecuador’s position as an important cocaine transit point. While their base was originally the port city of Manta, the gang leveraged a strong presence nationwide, both inside and outside prisons, to ensure prompt delivery of cocaine shipments from Colombia’s southern border to port cities, such as Guayaquil. From there, the drugs would be loaded onto containers or otherwise smuggled to the United States and Europe. The gang also used criminal outsourcing, creating sub-groups to handle business locally, such as the Chone Killers in Guayaquil and the Tiguerones in Esmeraldas, near the Colombian border.
This infrastructure is what caught the eye of the Sinaloa Cartel. According to the Washington Post, the Choneros could move cocaine shipments destined for the legendary Mexican group from the Colombian border to the port of Guayaquil in just six hours.
That flow has only continued to grow. With Colombian cocaine production reaching record highs in 2021, seizures in Ecuador have kept pace. From January to December 2021, the country seized just shy of 192 tons of cocaine, up from 120 tons in 2020.
But this created ample room for competition. And with the murder of Rasquiña, much of the unifying force remaining within the Choneros crumpled.
Groups that had once bled to defend the Choneros’ turf in Ecuador suddenly changed sides. The Tiguerones and Chone Killers, for example, sided with the Lobos (Wolves) to form a united front against the Choneros.
The same happened inside the prison system, especially the Litoral prison in Guayaquil, which became the flashpoint of Ecuador’s prison violence this year. In February, when the Choneros’ sub-gangs first rebelled, massacres happened at three of the country’s largest prisons. Litoral saw most lives lost with 34 dead. In September, 119 more died at Litoral in one day as the Choneros and Lobos fought it out again. In November, another 68 bodies.
“The Choneros as a cohesive unit doesn’t really exist anymore. It has fragmented into five groups, the Chone Killers, the Tiguerones, the Lobos, the Aguilas (Eagles) and the Fatales,” one senior official source in Guayaquil, who requested anonymity due to not being authorized to discuss the matter, told InSight Crime.
José Adolfo Macías Villamar, alias “Fito,” is the current leader of the original Choneros remnants and appears to command the loyalty of the Aguilas and the Fatales. The problem is that Fito is incarcerated in Litoral, and so are his worst enemies. In early October, Fito was allegedly wounded in the arm in a smaller riot. In mid-November, his daughter and a friend of hers were kidnapped by so-far unknown assailants.
These three massacres, combined with other smaller-scale loss of life, has seen over 330 prisoners killed at Litoral in 2021.
Blame the Mexicans
There is no big secret for the rise in violence in Ecuador. In 2019, the country seized 79 tons of drugs, overwhelmingly cocaine. In 2020, 128 tons. From January to mid-October 2021, 146 tons. As the region battles against a record high production of cocaine, Ecuador is a highly convenient “superhighway” to get it to the world.
Fittingly, Ecuadorian authorities have blamed Mexico’s two biggest criminal organizations for the violence. They say the two groups, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG), are providing weapons and cash to their chosen partners inside and outside of the prisons.
"We are no longer facing common delinquents but the largest drug cartels in the entire world," said President Guillermo Lasso in an address to the nation on November 15. “Ecuador finds itself under a severe external attack by drug trafficking mafias.”
Some former officials have echoed these claims, citing official failures as the heart of the problem.
“The level of corruption is so high that the prison staff and officers are totally corrupted and the prisoners run the jail,” Mario Pazmiño, the former head of Ecuador’s military intelligence, told The Guardian.
But the actual involvement of Mexico’s leading cartels in Ecuador is difficult to prove. It is clear the Mexican groups need partners. And the arsenals of high-caliber weaponry finding their way to the Choneros and Lobos and the connections needed to move the colossal quantities of cocaine going through Ecuador certainly point to cooperation between these criminal organizations. What’s more, before the explosion in violence, the Choneros had a known partnership with the Sinaloa Cartel.
It is also highly plausible that the CJNG made alliances with the Choneros’ rivals and helped arm them to fight for control of Ecuador’s best drug trafficking routes. Several media reports in Ecuador stated that the Lobos, Tiguerones, Chone Killers and Lagartos have apparently banded together under the new name, Nueva Generación, in homage to their purported CJNG paymasters. InSight Crime was unable to confirm to what extent this name is really in use among the gangs.
“Some level of cooperation (with Mexican cartels) is clear,” said one foreign diplomatic source in Guayaquil, who requested anonymity due to security reasons. “Containers are leaving Guayaquil with cocaine and coming back full of cash and weapons.”
But these were loose, dynamic arrangements. Take the case of Telmo Castro, the Sinaloa Cartel’s “man in Ecuador” who was integral at setting up the cocaine pipeline between the Mexican criminal organization and Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). After Castro was murdered in Guayaquil’s Litoral Prison in December 2019, InSight Crime’s investigation found that the Sinaloa Cartel shifted away from fixed operators in Ecuador. Instead, they sent in small groups of brokers who would set up trafficking logistics with groups and then leave. Moving from this to backing a specific gang, arming it to fight brutal wars against its rivals, would represent a serious escalation and change in strategy.
The CJNG could well do the same, given its reach and financing. Recent arrests of Mexican nationals in Ecuador confirm drug trafficking connections but nothing on the scale being suggested in connection to the prison massacres.
Much like in Colombia and Venezuela, the footprint of Mexican organized crime in Ecuador remains elusive. In March, military officials spoke of 13 groups along the Ecuador-Colombia border having connections to Mexican organized crime without providing many specifics.
For Arturo Torres, a local journalist with extensive experience covering organized crime in Ecuador, this is nothing new.
“Police investigations have not conclusively shown how the relations between Ecuadorean gangs and Mexican cartels work,” he told InSight Crime, adding that police have been so focused on drug seizures that long-term investigations into the Mexican cartels appear to have fallen by the wayside.
The international connections also run deeper than Mexico. Albanian organized crime has an established footprint and links to violence in Ecuador, as well as drug traffickers from other Balkan nations, such as Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. The Italian ‘Ndrangheta allegedly has some presence overseeing its own cocaine seizures out of Guayaquil, although likely far smaller than its connections to the Brazilian port of Santos.
But for some experts, seeing this situation as entirely new is erroneous. "Violence in Ecuador is not unheard of. We had a peak of violence in the early 2000s...with a homicide rate similar to Mexico's. At the time, we spoke a lot about gangs such as the Latin Kings and the Ñetas in cities like Guayaquil," said Carla Álvarez, a crime and security expert at Ecuador's National Institute for Higher Studies (Instituto de Altos Estudios Nacionales - IAEN).
Time for Plan Ecuador?
Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso has certainly had unenviable cards dealt to him. He assumed power in May 2021, with the murder rate already spiking and with drug seizures in Guayaquil and elsewhere through the roof. Worse, a COVID-19 lockdown had just been imposed after the country temporarily became one of the worst-hit areas in the world.
At first, his response did not seem different from those of the past. In October, he deployed thousands of military and police personnel to “guarantee security.” That approach has been tried before. In 2019, soldiers were supposed to guard the outside of the prisons and police ensure security inside. The strategy did not work.
The fundamental crises remain. Prison overcrowding is at over 30 percent, facilitating the recruitment of new members. Prisons are dramatically understaffed and prison guards underpaid: There were just 1,500 of them for 40,000 prisoners nationwide in 2019, according to media reports.
Officials have said the right words. In August, the government vowed it would spend $75 million on prisons over the next four years, up from a paltry $665,000 in 2020.
Observers, however, dismiss this.
“They can’t fix prison overpopulation. They control the walls but not the prisons,” one government source told InSight Crime.
The Choneros and their groups have 12,000 members, according to media reports, and the Lobos and their allies have another 8,000.
More recently, President Lasso has sought international assistance.
“We need the international support of the United States, Colombia and the European Union crucially,” he told the BBC during the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow. “It is time for a Plan Ecuador.”
Plan Ecuador is a reference to Plan Colombia, the US-led strategy to fight drug cartels in Colombia from 2000 to 2015. It has been credited with ratcheting up pressure on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), leading to their eventual demobilization. But the plan also has a legacy of severe human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, mass displacements and a very slow judicial process for those who committed widespread criminal acts.
"American cooperation against drug trafficking in Latin America has been characterized by a strong military and police component. But this is not the most efficient way to go about this task. If it was, Plan Colombia and the seven American bases there would have ended this illicit business...if Plan Colombia did not reduce coca production by a single gram...why would we expect it to do so in Ecuador," said Álvarez.
Similar worries swirl around Ecuadorean efforts. After one attack, the Associated Press found that police were aware that groups were planning an attack. The morning of the massacre, three men were caught trying to smuggle firearms, grenades, dynamite and ammunition into Litoral.
In November, after the latest massacre in his prison system, Lasso replaced the head of his penitentiaries, said that the military would create “corridors” inside prisons, that he had plans to release thousands of less severe offenders and that mediation would begin with the gangs. A state of emergency allowing this to happen and for more funding to be immediately directed to prisons was also extended.
A Violent Smokescreen
For Torres, this focus on the prison gangs is understandable but are far from the entire problem.
“The gang wars in prisons are somewhat of a distraction. The drug trafficking phenomenon has other focuses than just the Choneros-Lobos war,” he explained.
For starters, while a majority of the cocaine is caught in Guayaquil, much of it makes its way down through other provinces, leaving plenty of room for violence in its wake.
In Esmeraldas, a strategic point on both the Pacific Ocean and the Colombian border, the drug trade has upended lives as remnants of the FARC have taken over territory left behind after the guerrillas’ demobilization. Indeed, prior to the FARC demobilization in 2016, numerous communities in Ecuador living close to the border relied on trans-border criminal economies to survive. In 2021, smaller groups of FARC dissidents provide a more violent alternative, and the government has not stepped in.
In Sucumbíos, a remote province in northeast Ecuador that also borders Colombia, traffickers have found a sanctuary since 2019. Drugs and contraband, minerals, fuel, weapons and migrants flow across this remote border with little state presence.
Multi-ton seizures of drugs are now commonplace in both Esmeraldas and Sucumbíos.
Part of this is related to the socio-economic situation. In both Esmeraldas and Sucumbíos, close to half the population live in poverty, according to government statistics. Fishermen, for example, have been drummed into service by drug trafficking gangs to help transport drugs out to sea, often to larger vessels that take the shipments north.
“What can they do? If working with criminals is the only way to make a living, of course they will do it,” said Torres.