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Inside Ecuador's battle against drug gangs

Members of the Army's Elite Forces patrol the streets of Carapungo, a popular neighbourhood in northern Quito, on January 11, 2024, as Ecuador is in a "state of emergency" since the prison escape of one of the country's most powerful narco bosses. With city streets largely deserted apart from a massive military deployment, Ecuador found itself in a "state of war" Wednesday as drug cartels waged a brutal campaign of kidnappings and attacks in response to a government crackdown. The latest outburst of violence was sparked by the discovery Sunday of the prison escape of one of the country's most powerful narco bosses, Jose Adolfo Macias, known by the alias "Fito." (Photo by AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Members of the Army's Elite Forces patrol the streets of Carapungo, a popular neighbourhood in northern Quito, on January 11, 2024, as Ecuador is in a "state of emergency" since the prison escape of one of the country's most powerful narco bosses. With city streets largely deserted apart from a massive military deployment, Ecuador found itself in a "state of war" Wednesday as drug cartels waged a brutal campaign of kidnappings and attacks in response to a government crackdown. The latest outburst of violence was sparked by the discovery Sunday of the prison escape of one of the country's most powerful narco bosses, Jose Adolfo Macias, known by the alias "Fito." (Photo by AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s been a major surge in gang violence in Ecuador, fueled by the transnational cocaine trade.

Now, Ecuador’s government is fighting back by sending in the military.

Today, On Point: How prison gangs and the transnational drug trade have plunged Ecuador into a state of emergency.

Guests

Thalie Ponce, journalist in Ecuador. Founder of Indómita Media. Collaborator with The New York Times.

Will Freeman, fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S.-based think tank.

Also Featured

Odalis Garcia, production assistant at TC Television in Ecuador.

Jordana Timerman, editor of Latin America Daily Briefing, a daily newsletter covering Latin American and the Caribbean.

Sebastian Urtado, president of Profitas, a political risk consultancy based in Quito, Ecuador.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: 22-year-old Odalis Garcia was on the second day of her new job at Ecuador station TC Television when, on January 9th, the unthinkable happened.

ODALIS GARCIA (SPANISH): Fue alrededor de las dos, dos y cinco de la tarde. Yo ya había terminado de enviar mis notas para para el noticiero de la tarde. De un momento al otro, escuchó gritos de una de mis compañeras que viene de afuera y dice, “Se metieron! Se metieron! Escondense!”

ENGLISH TRANSLATION: It was around 2, 2:05 in the afternoon. I had just finished sending my notes for the afternoon news. Suddenly I heard one of my colleagues yelling from outside, “They got in! They got in! Hide!”

(GUNSHOTS, SCREAMS)

CHAKRABARTI: Heavily armed men had broken into the TC Television’s headquarters in the coastal city of Guayaquil in the middle of a live news broadcast.

(SIRENS)

GARCIA (SPANISH): Estaba en shock. Escuché los disparos, los gritos. Pensé, “Donde me escondo? Que hago?

ENGLISH TRANSLATION: I was in shock. I heard shots, screams. And I thought “Where am I going to hide? What do I do?”

GARCIA (SPANISH): Atrás mi había una oficina, corrí y me metí debajo del escritorio, pero dejé encendida la luz y no cerré la puerta. Entonces yo dije miércoles, me van a encontrar.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION: There was an office behind me so I ran and hid under the desk. But I left the light on and didn’t close the door. So I thought, “Shoot, they’re going to find me.”

CHAKRABARTI: Odalis crept to one of the office bathrooms, where she found two of her coworkers already hiding from the intruders. The men were pacing the hallways with their guns.

GARCIA (SPANISH): Se produce un ruido de desde donde estábamos y ellos dicen “Acá hay más! Acá hay más! Acá hay más!” Elegimos como que nos van a encontrar y tenemos que salir porque nuestro miedo era como estábamos escondidos en el baño, ellos disparaban a la puerta. Eso teníamos miedo. Entonces elegimos mejor salgamos. Salimos y ellos están afuera de la puerta al baño.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION: There was a noise from where we were hiding and they said “There are more here! There are more here! There are more here!” We decided that they’re going to find us and we need to leave. Because our fear was that as we were hiding in the bathroom, they were going to shoot at the door. We were afraid of that and decided it was better to leave. So we left — and they were right outside the bathroom door.

CHAKRABARTI: One of the men grabbed Odalis by the collar the moment she stepped out of the bathroom. He pointed a gun at her. The men led her and her coworkers to a different room and forced them to kneel on the floor, the guns pointed at their heads. The attackers were also wearing explosives. That’s when she realized what could happen.

CHAKRABARTI: The attack at TC Television was being broadcast live across Ecuador. On air, viewers heard one of the attackers asking to be wired up with a microphone to send a message. He said he wanted to show the consequences of quote “messing with the mafias.”

Odalis says amid the chaos, a handful of men took her to a secluded booth.

GARCIA (SPANISH): Dos de ellos comienzan a tocarme a besarme en su desespero. Por ese punto. Yo solamente tenía miedo y estaba llorando y les decía en serio, hágame lo que quieran, pero no me maten.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION: Two of them started frantically touching me and kissing me. I was just so scared. And I was crying, and I told them, “Seriously do what you want to me but just don’t kill me.”

CHAKRABARTI: She was held hostage for about an hour. Finally, Odalis and her coworkers were rescued by the police. Thirteen men were detained and charged with terrorism.

The organized attack on TC Television is part of a wave of escalating violence in Ecuador. For decades, the country was among the least violent countries in Latin America. Now, it has the region’s fourth-highest homicide rate. That drastic change is driven by the combined forces of the nation’s powerful gangs, and the global drug trade.

Ecuador’s president, Daniel Noboa, has called the gangs terrorists. The TV station raid was just one of a series of violent attacks in Ecuador. Noboa has declared a state of emergency.

Odalis Garcia, the TC Television production assistant, took some time away from the office. This week, she was able to go back to the office.

GARCIA (SPANISH): Cuando entré por los pasillos, me imaginaba todas las escenas. Y de hecho, cuando ya fue la hora en el que pasó todo, yo decía,“A esta hora fue cuando entraron ellos. A esta hora fue cuando pasó todo.” Entonces sí, sentía el hecho de la presión de que va a volver a pasar.  Y escuchaba y me imaginaba como que los gritos, los disparos de aquel día.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION: When I walked through the hallways, I saw all of the scenes. And when it was the time, when it all happened, I said, “This is what time it was when they got in. This is the time when it all happened.” I was feeling the weight of like this could happen again. And I listened and I could imagine the screams, the shots from that day.

CHAKRABARTI: There are now armed guards standing outside the station entrance. But Odalis still can’t shake the feeling that the attackers could come back.

GARCIA (SPANISH): Pueden haber miles de policías afuera, pero quién sabe si vienen mucho, o sea, si vienen más personas malas, pero el doble, o sea, es como que eso de ok está la policía, pero aún así no me siento segura.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION: There can be thousands of police outside, but who knows whether many – or whether more people will come, but twice as many. It’s like, okay, the police are here, but I still don’t feel safe.

CHAKRABARTI: Odalis’s vulnerability is real. President Noboa has ordered the military to “neutralize” 22 armed groups in Ecuador. Essentially a war against the gangs.

The gangs immediately took that war back to the Ecuadorian state. Just yesterday, Cesar Suarez was assassinated in Guayaquil. He was shot multiple times while driving to a court hearing. Suarez was the prosecutor investigating the attack on TC Television. Police have not yet determined who murdered him.

So what exactly is happening in Ecuador and why? Thalie Ponce is a journalist in Guayaquil, Ecuador. She’s also founder of Indómita Media. She collaborates frequently with the New York Times as well.

And she joins us. Thalie, welcome to On Point.

THALIE PONCE: Hi Meghna, I am glad to be here today to discuss this important topic. Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: You’re in Guayaquil, you’re from there. This assassination happened just yesterday. Can you first describe how it feels to be in the city right now?

PONCE: Yeah, I think that being in Guayaquil since three years ago is very scary.

We all feel that we can be victims of anything, like anytime when we go out to the streets. When we lived what happened last week. In TC Television, I think that it was maybe a turning point because people were like very scared and 11 people died that day. Now we are somehow going back to normality in the streets, but it’s because we got used to like surviving.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, the shock of that television station attack, was that partly because it was so bold? Had the gangs done anything that bold before?

PONCE: Yeah, I think it was very bold. For me, for example, it impacted in two levels. Because one of my best friends, she was being held hostage, and seeing her that way, it was shocking, but also as a journalist, it hits different, because you know that you are being, you’re exposed with your work. And I think that we never imagined as citizens, that something like this could happen. Seeing armed men taking like a live broadcast, it was very different, and it’s the biggest channel in Ecuador. So it definitely sends a message.

CHAKRABARTI: How powerful are these armed groups, gangs or cartels in Ecuador?

I think that it can be answered with what happened last week, that actually unleash everything with what we are seeing, Ecuador’s attorney general, Diana Salazar, she exposed an investigation that have been held by her office. This is called a caso Metástasis. And it revealed narco corruption in the highest levels of the government, including judges, prosecutors, and other officials.

And this shows how gangs are corrupting everything in the system, and they have the power, not only in the streets, but also inside the jails that work as centers of operation for criminal gangs and organized crime.

CHAKRABARTI: And so then what happened? When this case was revealed, this kind of put a pressure on Noboa’s government that as we know is new. And he announced some changes that were going to take place.

These changes included transferring several powerful gang leaders to a Mexican moon security facility, but the plan was late. And then Adolfo Macias, that’s known as Fito, he’s the leader of a gang called Los Choneros, which is currently the most powerful gang in Ecuador. He went missing. He escaped from prison.

And then another kingpin, Fabricio Colón Pico, from the gang Los Lobos, escaped too, just three days after being captured.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So let’s focus on Macias or quote unquote Fito, as he’s known as you said. The transfer to a high security facility was done for the reasons you said, but I want to talk about where he was being transferred from. Because it doesn’t seem at all like the prison, he was in was a prison for him, right?

He was running the cartel’s business from there.

PONCE: Yeah, of course. He was held in Litoral Penitentiary. It’s the biggest jail in here in Ecuador, but it’s not a maximum-security facility. And he was the lord there. Some inmates have talked to the press, and they have tell us that inside the jail, for example, he had a luxury, for example, luxurious mattress and a refrigerator and every kind of facilities, and he was living like a lord inside the jail.

CHAKRABARTI: I see that he also had a pool constructed at that prison, his girlfriend came for a week. And he was in such control of the prison that at one time he even had, he welcomed cameras in and was featured in a professional music video from prison. Did the Ecuadorian law enforcement there have any control over the facility or was it essentially run by Macias and his fellow gang members?

PONCE: Yeah, I think that this, all of this that you’ve said shows that effectively, there’s no law for us inside the jails. There’s in theory, we have a service that supposedly controls the penitentiary system, but in the reality, it doesn’t happen. We’ve seen that each jail has a different kingpin or leader.

And inside the jails, also the wings have like different leaderships of different gangs.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Thalie, right now the entire nation of Ecuador is under a curfew, essentially, between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. What other changes are the people of Ecuador having to experience because of this surge in terrible violence?

PONCE: I think that mainly what we’re seeing is the military action in prisons, but also in the streets, and that feels very different in daily life.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay but tell me more about that. How visible are the police, et cetera?

PONCE: Yeah, we’re seeing like police and military operations in the streets.

But I think that it’s very important to mention that even though this has been braced by the majority of the population, that they’re even giving like food donations to the militaries, to the military officers because they are like saying their job is essential, even though they have a salary, it has also raised concerns on human rights matters.

We’ve seen these days in social media, for example, videos of military officers making fun of people in the streets, mainly impoverished people. We also saw two men that were naked in a motorcycle, because some officers took the clothes from them, because they were past the curfew, but instead of detaining them, they take the clothes from them, and they were naked. And people were laughing of this as it was fun.

And what also is concerning is that it could be some racial profiling in the streets.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. In just a moment we’re going to talk about how the gangs in Ecuador became so powerful, the drug trade being a major factor. But Thalie, I also understand that since so many gang members were or are in prison and those prisons, as we talked about, were essentially run by the kingpins of those gangs.

There was another source of money for them, essentially, that they were extorting their fellow prisoners?

PONCE: Yeah, this is true. There’s actually a kind of fee that someone has to pay when going inside the jail, even though you are in jail for minor crimes, you have to first join to the gang that leads the wing you’re assigned to. And secondly, you have to pay for your life, basically. For your life, for your protection, and to have access to basic services. Just as having a meal, because they control everything, and who are paying for this are the families of the inmates from outside the prisons.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Thalie, there’s one more question I want to ask because we’ve been focusing on the prisons, but there have been many other events beyond even beyond the television station takeover that have been happening, explosions, other people being taken hostages, a surge in crime overall. Can we attribute all of that to the gangs?

Or is there another factor we should be thinking of?

PONCE: Yeah. The thing is that actually nowadays we can’t talk like about gangs without mentioning that the link they have with organized crime gangs as it used to be. For example, past years we saw robberies in the streets, but they were like, not related to this.

Nowadays, all the gangs in the street respond to organized crime gangs and these gangs at the same time are linked to international drug cartels, such as Jalisco Nueva Generación and Cartel de Sinaloa from Mexico, and there is also the presence in Ecuador of international organized crime, like the Albanian mafia.

So everything is corrupted, as I said before.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Thalie, stand by for just a moment because I want to bring Will Freeman into the show. He’s a fellow for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Will Freeman, welcome to On Point.

WILL FREEMAN: Hi, Meghna. Thanks for having me on.

CHAKRABARTI: I want to hear from both of you about how Ecuador got to this place of terror, essentially, it’s been experiencing over the past several weeks.

Because as I said in the beginning of the show, at one time Ecuador was considered the most peaceful or one of the most peaceful of the Latin American states. Can you take us back to that time? How did Ecuador achieve that period of peace?

FREEMAN: Ecuador sits between Colombia and Peru, two of the two biggest coca, cocaine producers in the world.

So really, it was surprising, as you mentioned, that it was a country with relatively low homicide rates, but it did not have a large insurgency or rebel movement in the 20th century. It had a military dictatorship, but it wasn’t as brutal as some of the neighboring countries’ dictatorships. And then after that period, under democracy in the ’80s, ’90s, even 2000s.

Ecuador became a transit country for drugs from Colombia and Peru. But essentially drug trafficking in Ecuador was controlled during that time by the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a decades old Marxist rebel movement. Which made a lot of its money off of drug trafficking and essentially held a monopoly in Ecuador.

They worked with local gangs, but essentially, they were the top bosses and the government for the most part of Ecuador stayed out of the way.

CHAKRABARTI: So then actually Thalie, let me turn back to you first and hear what you have to say about that shift from relatively peaceful times under the military dictatorship to what you’re seeing now.

What more would you like to add to that?

PONCE: Yeah. I think that there’s also a turning point that is not always mentioned, and I think that the pandemic showed a lot of state presence, a total abandonment, and this added to what Will said, because it is exposed how the state in Ecuador is not working and how Ecuador was not only geographically strategic, but also political strategic for this operations.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so I want to dig into a little bit more to the transnational drug trade here. Because, so Will to be clear, Ecuador was a transit nation for cocaine. Or was there any actually grown natively in Ecuador?

FREEMAN: No, it was a transit country during these years. And as I mentioned, it’s not that organized crime was absent from Ecuador during these years of relative peace.

It’s that there wasn’t much competition over the drug trafficking routes or over the ports. Now during these years, ’80s, ’90s, 2000s. Most cocaine was also flowing north to the United States from Columbia on small planes or through the ports of Ecuador, but through small vessels. Now in the 2010s, you start to get much more demand for cocaine and especially recently in Europe, and Asia and parts of the Middle East.

It’s made the cocaine trade really a global phenomenon and that’s converted ports in South America into very lucrative assets, because more and more, you need to rely on smuggling cocaine in big shipping vessels, in containers. So I think that’s where you start to see Ecuador become a more valuable piece of turf in this entire scheme of global drug trafficking, and where you start to see really intense competition among local groups and also among some of the transnational groups earlier mentioned, for control of Ecuadorian territory and the ports of the country.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. So as you point out the global nature of this is an important piece of the puzzle, because I think you’ve said before that, what, in the past year or so, in the European Union, what was it, Turkey and not Turkey, not an official EU country, but the governments of Turkey and Norway seized what, four times the volume of cocaine that they had seized in 2016?

FREEMAN: So it was the EU member states, Norway and Turkey all together seized quadruple the volume of cocaine that they had seized in 2016.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. So those three groups. That is a huge growth. I want to step back to Colombia also for a moment here. Because you mentioned that the transit of drugs through Ecuador was largely controlled by FARC.

Does the end of FARC’s war with Colombia and the relatively greater stabilization of politics and peace in Colombia have anything to do with the increase in violence in Ecuador? If FARC wasn’t controlling so much of the trafficking anymore.

FREEMAN: Absolutely. I think this is the most tragic illustration of the idea that no good deed goes unpunished.

In 2016, the Colombian state managed to finally sign peace accords with FARC, demobilizing the vast majority of that group’s fighters, bringing this unprecedented era of peace to Colombia after 50, 60 years of constant internal armed conflict. But first of all, some of the FARC fronts, especially in the south of the country, didn’t put down their weapons, they didn’t agree to the deal, and they continued pumping cocaine into Ecuador.

And also, those groups, now they no longer had really any burden on them to support the rest of the organization. They could retool as full-time drug trafficking outfits. So you saw increasing volumes of cocaine, going through Ecuador instead of Colombia, which was ever more stable, where there was ever more state control in certain parts of the country.

And Ecuador really became this new important trafficking route for these Colombian drug cartels. Now alongside that you saw the rise of also important Ecuadorian. Gangs and drug trafficking organizations in their own rights, as they were no longer just the junior partners to the all-powerful FARC.

Instead, they were something more like equal business partners in this relationship, and increasingly had a lot to gain from this more and more profitable trade.

CHAKRABARTI: Thalie, the presumption is that it is at least more difficult for gangs and the drug trade to really take root in a country if the nation itself has strong institutions, right, to control narco trafficking and cartel-based crime. Can you give me a sense of the strength of Ecuador’s political institutions as the power of the local, the Ecuadorian gangs grew?

PONCE: Yeah, I think that this is something that the government and the authorities did not foresee. And that shows the weakness of the government. They are not public policies that respond to this problematic. And I think there was like an underestimation of the situation. And actually, during the government of Lenín Moreno, there was a major change on how the penitentiary system was controlled.

It used to be under the administration of Ministry of Justice, but then it passed to be under like the control of service. The service of the penitentiary. So I think that evidently, it was like symbolic, how it weakened like the power of the state on the system. And I also think that the corruption of the state officers also shows how the government is not like working on prevention, for example, and I think this is very important. Last year, the U.S. announced the withdrawal of visas from what they called narco generals, because in their investigation, they had proof of how officers from the police were linked to organize crime.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. On that point, I want to play some of what Ecuador’s Attorney General and the Ecuadorian President Noboa have said recently about the corruption within Ecuador’s government.

This just follows on from what you were talking about in the first segment, Thalie. So first of all, here’s Ecuadorian Attorney General Diana Salazar, in a video that her office made talking about her corruption crackdown case. As Thalie mentioned earlier, it’s called Caso Metástasis, which investigated the infiltration of drug gangs in the country’s political and judicial system, and at the time had resulted in some 30 arrests.

She says the term narco politics is now applicable in Ecuador and is no longer a distant concept. Because we can see how criminal structures have used and rewarded our country’s institutions to help them achieve their goals. And surely the response to this operation will be an escalation of violence.

CHAKRABARTI: She was right. Now here’s Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa recently talking about how judges in the country can be corrupt and even give assistance to gang leaders like Fabricio Colón Pico.

Noboa says It’s absurd that Colón Pico, there was a judge who had taken him out of jail six times.

Noboa says it’s absurd that Colón Pico, that there was a judge that took him out of jail six times. All of these people will also be considered part of the terrorism.

Will Freeman, do you want to respond to that about this corruption in Ecuadorian government and the attempts to fight back even before the surge of violence?

FREEMAN: I think it is important that we talk about the period before the surge in violence. So often I think this discussion focuses only on the last couple of years in Ecuador, assuming that narco corruption, became a very serious problem when you saw the rise in violence, actually, it was as much a very serious problem going back years earlier.

I think we need to talk about the presidency of Rafael Correa, Correa held office from 2007 to 2017. He was a charismatic populist. He and his party concentrated a great deal of power to the point that many observers, many Ecuadorians were worried about being on the brink of losing their democracy.

But also, and this is a less told story. There were signs that narco corruption was growing and growing under Correa’s government and it does not appear that he did enough to stop it. Some of his own campaign team were implicated in narco trafficking scandals and were revealed to have ties to known narco traffickers.

After that, Correa dismantled a special investigative unit of the police that was investigating these cases. He cut down cooperation with the DEA, which he saw as an imperialist intervention in Ecuador. Regardless, it left the country without the equipment it needed to monitor its airspace or its waters.

And on top of this, Correa doubled the prison population, creating the conditions of these overcrowded mega prisons, which have become, as Thalie mentioned, strongholds for the gangs today. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. But I say that because often, as I mentioned, this conversation starts as if it was yesterday.

In fact, narco corruption has been growing in Ecuador for years. Now, after 2017, it’s true that Correa’s opponents, known in Ecuador as the anti-Correa, came into office. First, there was a president, Lenín Moreno, and more recently, Guillermo Lasso, both to the center right. Now, unfortunately, they did hardly any better than Correa.

There were still mounting signs that cartels and gangs were managing to co-opt, buy off, coerce cooperation from the military, from the Navy, from the police, from judges. But you saw Moreno and Lasso focus their efforts elsewhere. And in the backdrop of all this, we’ve seen such intense political polarization in Ecuador, between these two bands, these two camps that I’ve been talking about, that I’d say until Noboa, until recently, we haven’t seen the country’s political class wake up and say, you know what’s more important than these political divisions?

The fact that we’re on the brink of becoming a narco state.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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