Gangs battling for control over port city leaves Ecuador broken

Ecuador, which sees 25 murders per 1,00,000 inhabitants, is the fourth most violent country in Latin America, only surpassed by Venezuela, Honduras and Colombia

July 12, 2023 12:16 am | Updated 12:16 am IST - GUAYAQUIL

 School children being frisked. Ecuador has seen increased policing, limited freedom of assembly and suspended citizen rights as part of its  war against organised crime.

 School children being frisked. Ecuador has seen increased policing, limited freedom of assembly and suspended citizen rights as part of its  war against organised crime. | Photo Credit:  HECTOR ESTEPA

With slow yet heavy steps, Herlinda walks through the rubble of what used to be her house. Her footsteps reverberate in what was her room, now empty, the windows covered with sheet metal. A nervous gaze scans the bare walls and the tangles of metal that slip between the walls.

The humble two-story building was blown up a year ago in an attack by criminal gangs who fought over the port city of Guayaquil, known as Ecuador’s gateway to the Pacific, located some 400 km south of capital Quito. Five neighbours lost their lives and dozens were seriously injured, including Ms. Herlinda, who lost an eye in the explosion.

“Thank God, I fell at the impact of the explosion, but I was not unconscious. I rushed out, I saw many people destroyed, injured,” recalls the 44-year-old cook, as she struggles to dust off her kitchen, which she is trying, very slowly, to rebuild.

Nothing has been the same since that day. “I liked to work, dance... but now I am seeing the doctor daily. I am constantly dizzy, and my head hurts. My life has totally changed”, she laments, closing the metal door of her home, located in the Cristo del Consuelo neighbourhood, while avoiding the curious glances of her neighbours.

Rise in violence

The highly populated place, made up of rows of humble buildings and narrow streets, is one of the areas where criminal gangs fight each other in Ecuador. In recent years, the South American country saw a major jump in violence.

In 2017 Ecuador was one of the safest countries in Latin America, with a rate of 5.4 murders per 1,00,000 inhabitants. Today, it is the fourth most violent country in the region, only surpassed by Venezuela, Honduras and Colombia, after marking 25 murders per 1,00,000 inhabitants. In 2022, it saw 4,603 homicides, almost double the previous year’s numbers, a record. To put the figure in context, India, according to the World Bank, registered three murders per 1,00,000 inhabitants in 2021.

Violence was not limited just to the streets of Guayaquil. Prisons that keep inmates belonging to the feared Mexican drug cartels such as Tijuana and Jalisco Nueva Generación, often witnessed gang wars. More than 400 people have been murdered in Ecuadorian prisons since 2020. The bloodiest of them broke out on September 28, 2021, at the Guayaquil Litoral Penitentiary, when 119 inmates were killed in a single day.

Guayaquil accounts for some 30% of the murders in the entire country. The reason, according to officials, is that gangs try to take control of the coast and the port, from where part of the cocaine produced in neighbouring Colombia leaves for the U.S. and Europe.

Guayaquil docks

Guayaquil docks | Photo Credit: Hector Estepa

Isla Trinitaria is one of the poorest, and also dangerous, neighbourhoods in the city. Hundreds of shanty towns, many of them made of wood, sprawl haphazardly over the trash-laden waters of the Salado estuary. Its intricate streets are a veritable labyrinth from where several of the gangs that have the city in check operate.

Criminalisation of poverty

What breeds organised crime in Ecuador? “The increase in violence is a consequence of state abandonment. The government has limited our access to education, health, housing and decent employment. All these limitations create the perfect scenarios for organised crime, which comes from nothing other than the criminalisation of poverty,” says Scarlett Choez, a social worker on Isla Trinitaria, whose father was seriously injured in a neighbourhood bombing.

This state abandonment is visible in the streets of the poor neighbourhoods, where unemployment is rampant, and thousands of families depend on charity, especially after the Coronavirus pandemics.

In the poor neighbourhoods of the city, drug use has also grown out of control. The situation becomes clear as soon as you cross the bridges that connect the centre city with the humble areas, when the streets begin to fill with informal merchants. Between the fruit carts and fast-food stalls, people hooked on “H”, a kind of heroin, sneak in, walking with their eyes lost in the horizon.

Scenes after a bank robbery in Guayaquil.

Scenes after a bank robbery in Guayaquil. | Photo Credit: Hector Estepa

Amid gang wars and the drug epidemic, common crimes are also on the rise. Robberies with violence have spread throughout the city. Blanca Moncada, a journalist with the website La Defensa experienced it first-hand. She was kidnapped, along with a friend, by two armed individuals, after taking a taxi in a relatively safe area of the city.

For two and a half hours they were driven around Guayaquil, until they were robbed of their money and journalistic equipment. “They told me that they were going to kill me if I didn’t cooperate, and then I decided not to resist, enduring their insults. My friend was even left without shoes. They groped me, with the excuse of looking for more things,” says the journalist.

Normalisation of crime

Ms. Moncada says the worst thing is the normalisation of crime. “You begin to experience this violence as a habit, as part of the idiosyncrasies of the territory. That’s how you look at it when you live here. It means living in a state of alert. Not being calm even in the public space that is supposed to be safer.”

Another problem the country is facing is the extortion business, which grew by 300% in 2022. “We are getting used to fear. It’s hard to say, but every merchant today, within Ecuador, is afraid that someone will approach you to ask for a bribe, with the excuse of protecting you, and tell you that if you don’t pay, they will blow up your business or threaten you and your family”, says a merchant from Guayaquil.

He does not want to be identified for fear of retaliation. “It causes nausea. It is a really terrible feeling of not being able to do anything, which saturates any normal person with nerves. There have already been kidnappings, and businesses that have been attacked by explosives.”

The rise in violent crimes has deeply affected the popularity of the government of President Guillermo Lasso, whose approval rating hit 15%. In May, Mr. Lasso, who was facing impeachment, dissolved Congress and announced that he’s leaving power – elections are expected to take place later this year.

The conservative President sent troops to the streets of the cities most affected by violent crimes and authorised them to use force. The government also increased police numbers, limited freedom of assembly of citizens and suspended many of their rights as part of its war against organised crime. But such decisions have not had any immediate impact on violent incidents.

“Citizen security cannot be addressed simply with military patrols in poor communities. This crisis has been aggravated by very strong cuts in the social sphere by this government and the previous one”, says Billy Navarrete, coordinator of the Standing Committee for the Defence of Human Rights.

Schools under attack

Dozens of soldiers patrol the Guayaquil schools. Armed soldiers searching students is a daily scene in schools, which are also affected by violence. “There is an expansion of the forced recruitment of children by gangs. The educational system is being intervened by the mafias. More than 200 minors were murdered last year. Clashes don’t just take place in the streets. They also occur inside schools. Many children have stopped going to school out of fear”, says Mr. Navarrete.

The crisis is getting worse. Between January and June this year, 3,326 homicides were registered throughout the country, 1,198 more than in the corresponding period last year. As law-and-order collapses and criminal organisations thrive, those who can afford to leave the country are migrating to the U.S. and Europe.

Hector Estepa is an independent journalist based in Ecuador.

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