Once Ecuador was a peaceful country, now it is one of the region’s most violent

Violent deaths quadrupled from 2019 in the lead-up to the assassination of a presidential candidate, locals are afraid to leave their homes and school classes have been suspended

Police officers and military personnel during an operation in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, April 2023.
Police officers and military personnel during an operation in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, April 2023.Vicente Gaibor

As cars passed along the main avenue of Durán, a small city in Ecuador near Guayaquil, they skirted around a bundle hanging on a rope from the bridge at the entrance to the city, the body of a man with a bare torso — his head almost touching the road. Further ahead, another corpse was suspended, with its hands tied behind its back and a rope around its neck. Both showed signs of torture. This was February 14, 2022, and Ecuador was breaking news after bodies were found strung up on bridges. For the first time, the nation accepted the message that organized crime had transcended the prison walls and was on the street, sowing a degree of violence that this South American country had never experienced before. The scene sparked fear and silence.

By that time, the number of deaths caused by violent crimes was already in its thousands — 2,500 last year. After that episode, the wave of violence spiraled out of control, as the government continued to follow its same approach to combat the expansion of crime: decree states of emergency to enable the military to assume control of public security in the streets, alongside the police.

The data show this approach had been unsuccessful. In 2022 alone, the country was under military control for 165 days, with four states of emergency decreed by the president, Guillermo Lasso. That same year, the nation recorded its highest ever homicide rate, 26 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, according to official data.

Never before had Ecuadorians experienced such high levels of violence. Before 2019, violent deaths did not even amount to 1,000. The police mainly patrolled the streets to deal with minor crimes such as cell phone theft and street fighting. Cities were abuzz with festivities to mark holy saints and important civic dates. The weather had always helped businesses to stay open late. Violence had never risen to the point of having to confine residents to their homes, forcing businesses to close or schools to suspend classes, as is happening now.

At the current rate of 4,200 violent deaths so far this year, Ecuador is set to smash its own record. By the end of this year, it could hit a rate of 40 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, making it among the most violent countries in the world.

For a long time, the discourse of the Lasso government was based on the idea that the murders were the result of a turf war between criminal gangs, downplaying the problem by saying that those who were killed were criminals. However, the figures for other common crimes do not support the government’s narrative. Ecuadorians live in constant fear of being extorted and kidnapped. According to the Attorney General’s Office, between January 2022 and June of this year, it registered 15,671 reports of extortion and 1,556 of kidnapping, of which only 59 cases have resulted in convictions. Ninety percent are still in the initial judicial stage of preliminary investigation.

The criminal operation centers are focused on prisons, where the leaders of the criminal groups that dominate the streets of Ecuador reside. The prison blocks are divided according to criminal gangs, where inmates have access to everything: satellite communication, drones, alcohol, a gym, drugs, money, weapons of all types, thousands of rounds of ammunition, explosives, and they even have the privilege of celebrating their leaders’ birthdays with pyrotechnic games. “The prisons are both punishment centers and schools of criminal activity,” states the Prison Dialogue Commission set up by the government in one of its initiatives to restore order in the prisons.

The high levels of crime are compounded by corruption and impunity. After the most recent prison massacre at the Litoral Penitentiary on July 25, the armed forces staged an operation in which they seized more than 30,000 rounds of ammunition, weapons, grenades — a recurring theme in the country.

For the first time, the operations hit the administrative offices of the state institution in charge of the prisons. The military opened the ceilings where they found weapons, guns, ammunition, drugs and cash.

The Prosecutor’s Office also indicted nine officials, including the director of the prison. “If no external oversight mechanisms are put in place for the police and armed forces, organized crime will continue to infiltrate to the core,” says Luis Córdova, coordinator of the Research, Order, Conflict and Violence program of Ecuador’s Central University.

The fatal shooting of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio has thrown the spotlight on the government’s actions, which attributes the spread of violence to the shift in criminality away from the hegemony of a gang known as Los Choneros since the 1990s. The group is made up of hitmen trained around the town of Chone, which is in the coastal province of Manabí.

In December 2020, the head of this criminal group, nicknamed “Rasquiña,” was murdered a few months after being released from prison. He had been convicted of murder, escaping from a high-security prison and bringing prohibited objects into the detention center. Nonetheless, a judge ruled that he could finish serving his sentence out of prison. Left without the head who coordinated thousands of Los Choneros gang members, the leadership struggle devastated the prisons where those who would eventually succeed him, Fito and Jr, were held. The latter was killed in May in Colombia after being granted pre-release.

Los Choneros splintered into other gangs such as Los Lobos, Tiguerones and Chone Killers, who terrorize cities across the country in their quest for power and territory.

“The penetration of organized crime did not happen overnight; it has numerous roots,” said the Minister of Government, Henry Cucalón, hours after the murder of presidential candidate Villavicencio, which has stunned Ecuador. The minister is confident that the state’s strategy in the war against crime will yield results, “obviously with government responsibilities at the head, of course, no one has disassociated them. But there is involvement, the armed forces, the judicial system, there are a lot of things, and we are working on it.”

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