A massacre in Ecuador's northern port city of Esmeraldas has underlined how competition over cocaine trafficking routes is contributing to escalating violence across the country.
Nine people were killed in the massacre, which police believe was carried out by the Tiguerones, a major Ecuadorian gang that controls most drug trafficking in Esmeraldas, local media reported. Three alleged members of the Tiguerones who participated in the attack have been arrested.
Security camera video footage shows the April 11 event in which 30 heavily-armed men arrived by boat to the Artisanal Fishing Port and began shooting at those on the quayside. Onlookers dived into the water or ran for cover to avoid the bullets. After more than a minute of shooting, the men returned to their boats and fled.
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In addition to the southern city of Guayaquil, Esmeraldas is one of the country’s key drug trafficking hubs. Cocaine from Colombia arrives to and leaves from the city’s ports. Local fishers are often coopted into moving drugs for criminal groups.
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The massacre demonstrates the increasingly brazen violence employed by gangs fighting for control of Esmeraldas, a vital drug trafficking hub.
Though Esmeraldas has experienced violence in the past, recently the security situation has worsened considerably. Fighting between the Tiguerones and local rivals, the Patones, as well as other local gangs, was behind last year's record homicide rates, police said.
Continued violence this year led Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso to declare a state of exception in Esmeraldas province, deploying the armed forces and national police to support overwhelmed local forces. But massacres are unusual. Previously, violence in Esmeraldas had been limited to targeted assassinations, like the murder last month of Tiguerones’ leader Ricky Palomino Clavijo, allegedly by the Patones.
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The Patones may be growing in strength due to cooperation with other local gangs. Local newspaper La Hora cited police claiming that the Patones have allied with the Choneros -- Ecuador’s major criminal organization -- and local group, the Gángster, to compete against the Tiguerones. However, an individual claiming to belong to the Patones denied that the groups had joined forces.
The battle between groups for key territories is constant, Carolina Loza León, a local journalist, told InSight Crime.
“It’s super volatile,” she said. “One day they could be fighting over one zone, take control, and the fighting moves to another part of the area.”
Driving the competition between gangs are the drug trafficking routes they want to control. Ecuador has long served as an exit point for Colombian cocaine to be shipped to the US and Europe. More recently, the country has been named as the departure point for major cocaine shipments headed to Australia and Russia.
Drug trafficking groups often recruit Esmeraldas' fishers to transport drugs, either north toward Central America -- Guatemala is a primary destination -- or out to sea where drugs are passed onto other vessels. Struggling local fishers can make $30,000 for less than one week’s work. Several hundred have been arrested for their involvement.
While this massacre is an escalation in brutality for Esmeraldas, it mirrors the rising frequency of wanton violence in other parts of Ecuador. In the province of Guayas, gangs have strung bodies from bridges, and they have set off car bombs as they fight for control of Guayaquil.
“What frightens me is that this massacre may be a model for large-scale violence,” Loza León said.