(FILE) File photo dated August 31, 2023 showing a group of policemen next to the remains of a car bomb that exploded outside the building of the National Service of Integral Attention to Persons Deprived of Liberty (SNAI), in Quito, Ecuador. EFE/ Str ARCHIVO

Criminal puzzle behind Ecuador’s worst-ever violence crisis

Cristina Bazan

Guayaquil, Ecuador, Oct 10 (EFE).- Ecuador goes to the polls on Sunday in the midst of the worst security crisis in its history, a wave of violence that hides a complex puzzle of criminal gangs clashing for territorial control and, above all, drug trafficking, having established the country as a hub for global cocaine trafficking.

In recent years, local gangs have gained weight in global drug trafficking markets due to their alliance with the Mexican Sinaloa and Jalisco – New Generation cartels, the “Balkan mafia” and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

These cartels, mafias, and armed groups contract logistics services to export drugs from Colombia to North America and Europe.

“What the Ecuadorian organizations have done is specialize within the organized crime value chain, which requires a series of activities that generate greater profitability,” Renato Rivera, coordinator of the Ecuadorian Observatory of Organized Crime, explained to EFE.

These activities include money laundering, arms trafficking, corruption, robbery, contract killings, and extortion, which “has made Ecuador a highly violent country,” Rivera adds.

Between 2018 and 2022, Ecuador went from 5.8 to 25.62 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. According to experts in the field, it could reach 40 by 2023, making it the “third or fourth most violent country in Latin America.”

In this context, presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated on August 9.

Ecuador already ranks third world drug seizures and is expected to exceed 200 tons this year.

Gang wars

Six criminal gangs in the country send drugs abroad, according to the police. One of the oldest is Los Choneros, which was born at the end of the 1990s and, for many years, controlled drug trafficking in alliance with the Sinaloa cartel and FARC dissidents.

“They had a kind of monopoly on organized crime and began to lose a lot of power in 2019 when we began to see the first prison killings,” Rivera recalls.

The weakening picked up steam in 2020 with the murder of their leader, Jorge Luis Zambrano “Rasquiña,” who had recently been released from prison, from where he controlled the market.

“The smaller organizations (Los Lobos, Tiguerones, and Chone Killers) split from Los Choneros and created a new alliance with the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation,” he adds, as well as with the “Balkan mafia,” which had been in the country for ten years and had consolidated its operations through the purchase of export companies.

The problem with these foreign gangs, says Rivera, is that “they do not generate strategic or long-term alliances with local organizations, but rather pay the highest bidder.”

This volatility has ignited rivalry between criminal groups that want to control the business, including Los Lagartos and the Latin Kings, which, according to the police, has had a direct effect on prison massacres that have left more than 400 inmates murdered in the last three years.

Recruitment in the neighborhoods The gangs are in charge of transporting, stockpiling, and shipping drugs in contaminated cargo containers, light aircraft, fishing boats, and launches, and also seek to control neighborhoods that are key to the drug trafficking route, especially in coastal areas.

They extort businesses, schools, and neighbors and force minors to join to use them as vigilantes, drug dealers, and hitmen.

“I can’t, being a minor or being the father of that minor, resist the imposition of the criminal organization,” Billy Navarrete, director of the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CDH), which documents cases of forced child recruitment in Guayaquil, told EFE.

According to Navarrete, the gangs have accumulated so much power in the absence of the state in these territories, that refusal means forced migration or death.

The same goes for extortion, a very lucrative activity born in prisons like Guayaquil. “This has generated that this community enters the business to survive. The criminal organization is the one that offers a future because there is no legitimate way. Everything falls into this illicit dynamic,” he says.

He adds that political instability makes this situation “much more difficult to manage,” which is why a “clear and visible political will” is needed from the next government that Ecuador elects on October 15.

Meanwhile, Rivera points out that the fight should focus on criminal economies, noting that between 2020 and 2022, there was only one conviction for money laundering. “The state is doing less to dismantle the illicit assets of organized crime,” he says. EFE


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