Esmeraldas, a province in northern Ecuador, has seen a sharp rise in homicides this year as the city becomes a major drug trafficking hotspot and the epicenter of an ongoing gang war.
Over 325 people were murdered in Esmeraldas during the first eight months of 2022, more than double all the homicides recorded in 2021, Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio reported on October 21.
Most of the killings are linked to gangs fighting to control drug trafficking routes from Colombia that go through Esmeraldas, according to Ecuador's chief of police, Fausto Salinas.
Authorities have seized at least five tons of drugs in the province this year.
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Authorities believe that the Tiguerones, a strong prison gang, have control over drug trafficking in most of the cities of Esmeraldas. They have been battling the Gángster, a faction of Ecuador's most powerful gang, the Choneros, authorities alleged.
The province has witnessed an ongoing increase in violence for some time as gangs engage in tit-for-tat killings. Most recently, a local Tiguerones leader was murdered by hitmen on October 16. A day later, at his funeral, the Tiguerones announced that they would avenge his murder.
Violence is also spilling over into the political sphere. On October 17, unidentified criminals also attacked Frickson Erazo, a local political candidate.
Prior to the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) in 2016, Esmeraldas was already a staging point for Colombian guerrilla groups. Since then, dissidents who refused to demobilize have adopted this role and drugs have continued to flow.
InSight Crime Analysis
Esmeraldas has been in the grips of a spiraling security crisis for years, a mixture of an inconvenient geographical situation, its role as a drug transit hub, and the presence of increasingly violent gangs.
Authorities have seized over 300 tons of drugs in the last 18 months, making Ecuador the country with the third-highest amount of cocaine seizures in the world. Esmeraldas, which has a crucial role in shipping cocaine to markets in North America, has played a significant role in this.
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And as violence has exploded nationally, Esmeraldas has followed suit.
The Tiguerones, a former offshoot of the Choneros before they turned on their allies, have a strong grip on the province's criminal economies. They have an estimated 1,500 members in Esmeraldas' prisons and between 3,000 and 4,000 more members in the province's streets, according to William Calle, a district police commander, in a recent interview with Primicias. Connections with powerful drug trafficking gangs in Mexico and Colombia have only given them further strength.