Inside Ecuador's rising gang violence fueled by booming cocaine trade

ByMatt Rivers, Caterina Barbera Kipreos, Aicha El Hammar Castano, Brandon Baur and Ivan Pereira ABCNews logo
Thursday, February 22, 2024

The port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador, has become one of the most critical transit points in the worldwide cocaine trade.

The growth of the drug trade has led to an increase in gang-related violence among themselves and the police with the citizens caught in the middle.

The violence has gotten bad since January, reaching a tipping point when an armed group held up a local TV news station in the middle of a live broadcast.

ABC News got an inside look into the situation, which experts say is getting worse driving many Ecuadorians out of the country, with interviews with some of the gang leaders and people who say they were at the mercy of their violence.

The war between the government and the gangs heated up on Jan. 7 when Adolfo Macias Villama, aka "El Fito," the head of the Los Choneros gang, escaped prison where was serving a 34-year sentence for his gang activities, officials said.

The next day Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa declared a state of emergency "so the armed forces can have all the political and legal support they need," to take on the gangs.

The military was deployed to the streets and the prisons, which are key power centers for Ecuador's organized crime, according to experts.

A day later, an explosion of gang violence rocked the country including the takeover of the TV station.

The gangsters blamed the corrupt elites in government for not allowing them to peacefully go about their work and for not providing an economy designed to work for all.

"We caved and allowed the government to enter the prisons. But now they are abusing their power," a Los Choneros gang member told ABC News.

At the same time, the gangs have been increasing their output of cocaine.

One of the leaders of the Los Tiguerones gang told ABC News that his group is shipping more coke than ever in their history.

"Fifteen years ago, during a raid, people would be surprised if they found 10 kilos. Now they find ten tons," he told ABC News.

A few weeks ago, 22 tons of cocaine, which was worth more than $1 billion, were captured by Ecuador's military. Government officials say nearly 200 tons were seized last year alone.

The Tiguerones leader who spoke with ABC News said that a new partnership with Mexican cartels has changed the game. The gangs act as a middle man shipping the drugs from their origin in Colombia, he said.

"They send the guns, the money," the leader said of the Mexican cartels. "We use the guns to protect ourselves and their product, and with the money we buy cocaine at the border."

The gangs have also been augmenting their finances with extortion plots against local residents.

Javier, an Ecuadorian taxi driver, told ABC News that he was sent threatening texts and other messages by the gangs seeking money.

"That scared me. They had pictures of my house, the places I usually go to, and my route back and forth from work," he said.

Javier said he was kidnapped and held for a day before his wife paid the kidnappers $5,000, all of their life savings.

He said that his family had been saving to leave the country and the violence.

"I get emotional because I want to move forward. I had this goal, I wanted to leave and find something better for my family," Javier said.

He was one of the fortunate ones as Guayaquil's homicide rate has jumped by five times compared to a few years ago, according to officials.

And the gangs have threatened that they have no intention of stopping their attacks.

"This is a ticking bomb. They played their cards, now it's our turn," a Tiguerones member said.

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