Seven people were gunned down in Guayaquil after a record cocaine seizure – in a revenge attack that shows ripples in the equilibrium of drug gangs responsible for the storage and transport of cocaine in Ecuador.
The wave of killings came after the seizure of 9.6 tons of cocaine, a record haul in recent years, authorities said in an August 13 news conference. According to a video news release, police discovered the drugs after smashing a false wall in a bodega in Vergales, a neighborhood in northern Guayaquil. The stash house was disguised as a water bottler and seller. The cocaine – packaged in some 9,500 bricks and ready for shipment – was destined for Mexico and the United States, authorities said.
El Universo reported that the slayings began in the hours after the discovery when motorcycle hitmen shot two men. The next day another attack left two more men dead.
SEE ALSO: Ecuador News and Profile
Then, on August 15, six gunmen wearing flak jackets opened fire on a couple. One victim, a 24-year-old man, shot more than a dozen times, had a drug rap sheet and was related to a former leader of the Lagartos gang, one of Ecuador's largest gangs in Ecuador. That same night, another man was shot dead.
Police Coronel Henry Tapia told El Universo that gangs were behind the spate of killings, which all occurred in southern Guayaquil. He said the “lower criminal gangs,” not a larger criminal organization, were searching for those responsible for the loss of the cocaine shipment.
Ecuador is prized as an exit point for cocaine due to its location – sandwiched between the cocaine-producing countries of Colombia and Peru – its long Pacific coastline and its large maritime shipping industry.
InSight Crime Analysis
The discovery of the drugs and the ensuing string of killings indicates that Ecuador’s drug trafficking chain, which includes its gangs, has been disturbed.
Gangs intersect with the drug trade in a specific way in Ecuador, warehousing cocaine and then coordinating with corrupt port workers to place drugs in maritime shipments or loading them on boats and aircraft heading north. The gangs are also useful to traffickers – who maintain the logistical networks - for securing drug shipments, as well as serving as debt collectors and contract killers.
While a relatively stable drug chain in Ecuador has meant that the type of drug violence seen in other South American countries is less common, killings have surged recently, as more gangs battle for a slice of the drug trade.
SEE ALSO: Ecuador: A Cocaine Superhighway to the US and Europe
The Choneros, a longtime street gang, and their main rival, the Lagartos, are in a pitched battle for territory and control of street-level drug sales. Splinter groups also have emerged after the transfer of gang leaders to distant prisons.
In February, Ecuador saw the worst prison riots in its history, when 79 inmates died in attacks across three large prisons. The riots had targeted high-level members of the Choneros. Four Choneros splinter groups allegedly coordinated the attacks against the Choneros' leadership after the murder of longtime Choneros boss, Jorge Luis Zambrano, alias "Rasquiña," in December 2020. In July, rioting in two prisons left at least 22 inmates dead. The gang clash appeared to be a revenge attack for the ambush on the Choneros.
Gang warfare has also spilled onto Ecuador’s streets. Targeted killings are regularly occurring. In May, a woman was shot dead in her Guayaquil hospital room when four hitmen dressed as police mistook her for a target.
The homicide rate in Ecuador is the highest it has been in five years – and much of the murders are attributed to discord within its gangs, which may be having reverberations on the drug trade. Betrayals may be becoming more common, and information may be circulating more freely than usual.
The recent seizure of ten tons of drugs was the second record haul for police in less than two months. In late June, police seized more than seven tons of cocaine at the Guayaquil port in a shipment destined for Spain, according to a news release.
Four days before that seizure, motorcycle hitmen gunned down a port worker who recently resigned from his job loading cargo. Police discovered $26,000 in his truck.