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Murder of prosecutor alarms Ecuador’s government in midst of war on crime

Police operations against gangs have been marred by the killing of one of the country’s most important anti-corruption investigators in broad daylight

Murder of prosecutor in Ecuador
Police investigate the vehicle that prosecutor César Suárez was traveling in when he was murdered, on Wednesday in the north of Guayaquil (Ecuador).Jonathan Miranda (EFE)
Juan Diego Quesada

The government of President Daniel Noboa had managed to momentarily bring back calm to Ecuador, at least on the surface. While the country’s morgues were still filled with dismembered and decapitated bodies, the Ecuadorian army had stabilized Guayaquil, the city hardest hit by violence. People had returned to the streets, cars were on roads again. Businesses were open, if only until 11 p.m., the start time of the curfew. Ecuadorian authorities had also regained control of the country’s prisons without causing bloodshed.

However, the murder of one of the country’s most important prosecutors in broad daylight on Wednesday has sent alarm bells ringing in the government, which is concerned by how gangs are attacking state structures, seemingly without fear. Noboa, who was in Miami for the birth of his third child, has not discussed the murder.

Organized crime was responsible for last year’s murder of Fernando Villavicencio, a presidential candidate known for investigating the links between gangs and politics. Nobody thought that criminals would dare to go that far. Mayors and city councilors were also killed before Villavicencio’s assassination.

Now, criminal groups have stepped up their attacks, targeting César Suárez, a well-known anti-corruption prosecutor. His last job, which took place a few days before the murder, consisted of interviewing the 13 young people arrested for storming an Ecuadorian TV station in the middle of a live broadcast. The attack — which took place on January 9 — triggered a new wave of violence. With the murder of Suárez, organized crime has left a clear message: no one is untouchable.

Forensic officers work at the site where Fernando Villavicencio was murdered, in Quito, in August 2023.
Forensic officers work at the site where Fernando Villavicencio was murdered, in Quito, in August 2023.KAREN TORO (REUTERS)

Not even the president. The building in which he lives in Guayaquil — he owns that one and the one next door is owned by his father, the richest man in the country — remains guarded by two dozen soldiers stationed in front of the boardwalk.

Suárez, in contrast, had no security detail. His latest investigation sought to reveal who was behind the attack at the TV station, which has been blamed on Los Tiguerones, one of the biggest gangs in Ecuador. But there are doubts about whether this was the case that cost him his life. The prosecutor also went after white-collar criminals in the Metastasis case, which investigated corruption in the justice system, an issue that is very present in Ecuadorians’ daily lives. At the same time, he pursued corrupt businessmen who made money illegally from the sale of equipment to hospitals during the pandemic.

There are many suspects, but only one must have ordered the murder. Suárez was shot more than 20 times when he was driving a white car in the north of Guayaquil. He had just left his office, and was heading to a court for a hearing. He was known for being tireless, incorruptible. His murder is reminiscent of the Italian mafia’s attacks on judges in the 1990s, or the current killings of prosecutors in Mexico, where drug trafficking has been deeply entrenched for decades. The death of the prosecutor reveals the power of the Ecuadorian gangs, which have infiltrated the heart of the state system. They hit politics with the assassination of Villavicencio and are now challenging the justice system with the murder of a leading prosecutor. Suárez is not the first prosecutor to be targeted. At least two others were murdered last year, also in Guayaquil.

César Suárez.
César Suárez. abcesarsuarezp

Ecuador’s authorities have loudly condemned the murder. Attorney General Diana Salazar said that prosecutors would not be deterred, but instead redouble their efforts to combat crime. She herself has been the target of threats. Last year, she received threatening phone calls from foreign numbers. Intimidation and a climate of terror also marked the 2022 regional elections, with candidates, mayors and councilors receiving threats.

Defense Minister Giancarlo Loffredo rejected “all forms of violence” and said he supported the national government’s commitment to help prosecutors bring about justice. Loffredo linked the murder of Suárez to the military and police operations launched after Noboa said the country was fighting an “internal armed conflict.” Organized crime in Ecuador controls judges, prosecutors, police officers and generals. In the past three years, these gangs have formed alliances with Mexican drug cartels, which have turned Ecuador into the world’s biggest exporter of cocaine.

Diana Salazar
The attorney general, Diana Salazar, in 2019.José Jácome (EFE)

The Ecuadorian government has tried to convey that it is winning the war on crime. On Wednesday, as it does every day, it announced results of the police operation: 1,975 arrested for “terrorism,” 55 raids against “terrorist groups” (as the gangs are called), five “terrorists” killed and 32 hostages released. It also reported on the arrest of Chelo, a gang leader, and Leo, a hitman. That report was made public in the morning, before Suárez was killed. His death, even if it is just one, casts a shadow over the government’s military operations.

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