A total of 210 tons of drugs seized in just one year, a record. At least 4,500 homicides last year, also a record. Children recruited by gangs. Prisons as a hub for crime. Neighborhoods consumed by criminal feuds. And all of this chaos financed by powerful outsiders with deep pockets and a lot of experience in the global drug business.
Ecuador, at the western edge of South America, has become a drug gold rush state in just a few years, with major cartels from Mexico and Albania joining forces with prisons and gangs of street, unleashing a wave of violence unlike any in the country’s recent history.
Fueling this turmoil is the growing global demand for cocaine. While many policy makers have focused on an epidemic of opioids, such as fentanyl, which kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, cocaine production has soared to record levelsa phenomenon that is now ravaging Ecuadorian society, turning a once peaceful nation into a battlefield.
« People consume abroad, » said Major Edison Núñez, an intelligence officer with the Ecuadorian National Police, « but they don’t understand the consequences happening here. »
It’s not that Ecuador is new to the drug business. Sandwiched between the world’s largest cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru, it has long been an exit point for illicit products bound for North America and Europe.
But a boom in Colombia in the cultivation of coca leaf, a staple ingredient in cocaine, has created a surge in drug production, while years of lax controls on Ecuador’s drug industry have made the country an increasingly attractive base. for drug production and distribution. .
Drug-related violence began to rise around 2018 as local crime groups sought better positions in the trade. At first, the violence was mostly confined to prisons, where the population had increased following tougher drug sentences and an increase in the use of pre-trial detention.
Finally, the government lost control of its penal system, with prisoners forcing other inmates to pay for beds, services and security, and even to hold the keys to their own prison blocks. They soon became penitentiaries operational bases for drug trafficking, according to Ecuadorian experts.
International organized crime saw a lucrative opportunity to expand operations. Today, Mexico’s most powerful cartels, Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generación, are financiers on the ground, along with a group from the Balkans that the police call the Albanian mafia. According to police, local prison and street crime groups with names like Los Choneros and Los Tiguerones work with the international gangs, coordinating warehousing, transportation and other activities.
Cocaine, or a precursor called coca base, enters Ecuador from Colombia and Peru, and then usually departs by water from one of the country’s busy ports.
Of the approximately 300,000 containers that depart each month from one of Ecuador’s most populous cities, Guayaquil, one of South America’s busiest ports, authorities are able to search only 20 percent, Major Núñez said.
These days, the drug is transported from Ecuadorian ports hidden in reconstructed floors, in boxes of bananas, in wooden pallets and cocoa, before arriving at parties in US university towns and in the clubs of European cities.
In Guayaquil, a humid city framed by green hills, with a metropolitan population of 3.5 million, rivalries between criminal gangs have spilled onto the streets, producing a horrific, public style of violence clearly intended to induce fear and exert control.
Television news stations are regularly filled with stories of beheadings, car bombings, police killings, youths hung from bridges, and children killed outside their homes or schools.
« It’s so painful, » said a community leader, who asked not to be named for security reasons. The leader’s neighborhood has been transformed in recent years, with children as young as 13 being forcibly recruited into criminal gangs. « They are under threat, » the leader said. “’Don’t you want to join? We will kill your family.’”
In response, Ecuadorian president Guillermo Lasso, a conservative, declared several states of emergency, sending the military onto the streets to man schools and businesses.
More recently, Los Choneros and others have found another source of income: extortion. Shopkeepers, community leaders, even water suppliers, garbage collectors and schools are forced to pay criminal gangs a fee in exchange for their safety.
Inside prisons, extortion has been common for years.
One recent morning in Guayaquil, Katarine, 30, a mother of three, sat on a sidewalk outside the largest prison in the country. Her husband, a banana farmer, had been taken into custody five days earlier, she said, following a street fight.
He called her from prison, she said, asking her to transfer money to a bank account belonging to a gang. If she didn’t pay, she explained, he would have been beaten, possibly electrocuted.
Katarine, who for security reasons asked to use only her name, eventually sent $263, about a month’s salary, which she acquired by pawning her personal effects.
« I was more than desperate, » she said, asking why authorities weren’t doing more to control the practice. Every person thrown in jail, she said, was another contributor to the criminal gangs.
The violence has traumatized many Ecuadorians in part because the change in the country’s fortunes has been so dramatic.
Between 2005 and 2015, Ecuador witnessed an extraordinary transformation, as millions of people risen from miseryriding the tide of an oil boom whose profits then leftist Rafael Correa poured into education, health care and other social programs.
Suddenly, governesses and masons believed their children could finish high school, go pro, and live completely different lives than their parents. Today, those Ecuadorians are watching their neighborhoods deteriorate amid crime, drugs and violence.
The country’s decline has also been aggravated by the pandemic which, as in other parts of the world, has hit the economy hard. Today, only 34 percent of Ecuadorians have adequate employment, according to government figures, down from a high of almost 50% a decade ago.
In some neighborhoods, community leaders say, financial hardship is driving young people into crime, exacerbating the security crisis.
Another morning in Guayaquil, Ana Morales, 41, stood in a large cemetery, visiting a white crypt that held the remains of her son, Miguel, who had been a hairdresser and a father. Ms Morales said when work dried up during the pandemic, she stole a mobile phone to pay for medicine and food, landing her in jail.
That turned out to be a death sentence. While there, a riot broke out among the prison gangs.
He was one of more than 600 people killed in prison feuds since 2019, according to the Standing Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, a Guayaquil-based nonprofit.
Ms. Morales helped found the Committee of Relatives for Prison Justice, a group that has sued the Ecuadorian state, accusing it of violating the human rights of prisoners and demanding full reparations.
Her goal is to speak for « the other crying mothers, who stayed in their homes clutching their pillows. »
« We are in a terrible crisis, » he said, « both in prisons and out on the streets. »
The crisis has spilled over into the government, where some officials have been accused of being co-opted by criminal groups. The journalists fled, prosecutors were killed and human rights activists silenced for investigating or reporting crime or corruption.
Lasso’s approval rating is low, according to polls, and in May, facing impeachment on corruption charges, he dissolved the National Assembly and called new elections. Ecuadorians are set to elect a new president and a National Assembly in August, with a possible runoff in October as the country finds itself at a political crossroads as violence escalates.
In Guayaquil, the police have tried to fight crime with night raids in high-violence areas.
One evening recently, a caravan of police vehicles screeched through Guayaquil suburb of Duran. At half a dozen stops they poured out in black flak jackets and balaclavas, ordering men ashore and sending screaming pajama-clad children into their mothers’ arms.
They made three arrests within several hours, sometimes seizing fist-sized white stones, presumably drugs, from inside a house.
Back in the car, the officers talked about the challenges they faced.
One officer, who requested anonymity so that he could speak freely, said what Ecuador really needed was a leader with a laser-like focus on crime. One name he brought up was that of El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, who gained global attention, but also widespread allegations of human rights abuses, for his mass incarceration rate and plummeting crime rate. .
« We need someone like the man in El Salvador, » the officer said, explaining that he liked the way Mr. Bukele « takes the reins of security. »
Lack of funds, the officer explained, meant officers were paying out of pocket to repair their vehicles. Instead of radios, they used their phones to communicate. Because criminals have far better technology, he said, « we’re in an unfair fight. »
The reporting was provided by Thalíe Ponce in Guayaquil, José María León in Quito and Genevieve Glatsky in Bogotá.