This is how the gang war jumped from the prisons of Ecuador to the streets

Frantic ammunition purchases, the daylight assassination of a mayor and the mounting body count inside Ecuador’s prisons indicate that the country’s turbulent security crisis is going from bad to worse.

The Andean country, a relatively peaceful nation until a few years ago, is now plagued by a turf war between rival criminal organizations. Amid brutal violence, one of the worst in decades, the government announced in June the purchase of 24 million cartridges for firearms, a figure that far exceeds the country’s population, to bolster security services.

Violence has been most pronounced on Ecuador’s Pacific coast where criminal groups fight to control and distribute narcotics, mainly cocaine. Over the weekend, Agustín Intriago, the mayor of Manta, Ecuador’s sixth-largest city, was shot dead along with Ariana Chancay, a young athlete he was talking to on the street.

Agustín Intriago, mayor of Manta, Ecuador, is assassinated in an armed attack

Armed attack results in the murder of the mayor of Manta, Ecuador 4:05
The country has also lost control of its prisons, which are often run by criminal gangs. More than 400 inmates have been murdered behind bars since 2021, according to the prison service, many of whom were killed during a series of gruesome massacres.

On Monday, the prison service revealed that at least 96 guards had been taken hostage by inmates inside the very prisons they should be guarding, while hundreds of inmates began a hunger strike to demand better conditions and protest the violence.

The next day, Ecuador’s attorney general announced that at least 18 people had been killed during a multi-day uprising at a prison in the port city of Guayaquil.

Mourners cry during the funeral of Agustín Intriago in Manta, Ecuador, on July 24, 2023. (Credit: Dolores Ochoa/AP)

Why has Ecuador become so violent?
The prison system has long been the main theater of violence in Ecuador. Security forces have had trouble confronting gangs inside overcrowded prisons, where inmates often take control of penitentiary sections and run criminal networks from behind bars, according to Ecuadorian authorities.

The country’s embattled president, Guillermo Lasso, has appointed five different directors of the prison service in just over two years in office, but none of them have succeeded in reducing violence.

Authorities thought the bloodshed could be contained behind bars, but that has changed in recent years. Ecuador has become an integral part of lucrative cocaine trafficking routes from South America to North America and Europe, according to security experts.

Ecuador has no history of cocaine production, nor of its main ingredient, coca, but it is between the two largest narcotics production hotspots in the world: Peru and Colombia.

State of emergency in Ecuador: at least 96 prison officers are being held after deadly prison riots
Ecuador violence
Security personnel arrive at the Penitenciaria del Litoral prison after a riot in April 2023. (Credit: Vicente Gaibor del Pino/Reuters)

Conveniently for smugglers, Ecuador is home to several ports used to handling a large number of merchandise exports, including crude oil, bananas and tuna in the Americas. Manta, for example, is the country’s main tuna port, providing half a million tons of fish per year to international markets, and an endless stream of cargo and fishing boats that can be exploited for the illicit trade.

Those ports have made Ecuador an ideal starting point for cocaine produced in Colombia, Peru or Bolivia. Analysts, including Col. Mario Pazmiño, the former Ecuadorian army intelligence chief, told CNN that foreign syndicates such as Mexican cartels, Brazilian urban gangs and even Albanian mafia cells have co-opted local organizations in Ecuador to act as foot soldiers in the ongoing conflict.

The Ecuadorian National Police says they have arrested those responsible for attacks with explosives in the Ecuadorian province of Esmeraldas
The dollarization of the Ecuadorian economy in 2000 also made it an easy place for criminal groups to launder illicit proceeds, analysts say.

Violence in Ecuador: 3 provinces in a state of emergency 3:38
Economic insecurity has also helped some Ecuadorians to commit crimes. Like many countries in the region, Ecuador was deeply affected by the blockades.

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