Surging Guayaquil violence highlights security ahead of Ecuador presidential vote

FILE PHOTO: Police officers keep watch next to sacks containing cocaine packages before the incineration of more than nine tons of cocaine seized during different operations, according to the Ecuador’s Interior Ministry, in a warehouse at an undisclosed l

By Yury Garcia and Alexandra Valencia

GUAYAQUIL/QUITO (Reuters) – Violence is rising sharply in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, as criminal groups brawl to control transport of drugs despite increased seizures, security forces and residents say, highlighting broader public fears about spiraling crime ahead of presidential elections next month.

The murders, gun battles and even cases of dismemberment in the port city of 2.8 million have hit the economy and created a climate of fear for inhabitants, echoing worsening crime rates seen in several Latin American countries in the years since the coronavirus pandemic.

Guayaquil registered 1,390 violent deaths in the first half of the year, nearly as many as it tallied in all of 2022 and close to half of the 3,500 cases registered nationally, according to police figures.

The violence, often in areas near to ports, is due to rivalries between seven major criminal groups, said Fausto Salinas, the commander of Ecuador’s national police.

The groups, backed by international cartels, are seeking territorial control within the city and the chance to control domestic movement of drugs – from imports across the border to shipments out of the country, as well as local sales, he said.

“Now there’s a war for control between criminal organizations,” Salinas told Reuters, explaining seizures spark fighting over other routes, worsening violence.

Outgoing President Guillermo Lasso has been heavily criticized for failing to tamp down violence, despite using emergency powers to authorize soldiers to patrol the streets and use their weapons against criminals.

Lasso’s government has blamed violence on the streets and in prisons on criminal infighting to control routes used by Mexican cartels, the Albanian mafia and others to move drugs.

Wellington Avila, a Guayaquil taxi driver who was kidnapped eight months ago, said criminal expansion is obvious.

“The groups now have so much power, they were allowed to get stronger,” said Avila, 45, who escaped his captors by jumping from his moving car, which was later used in robberies. “All we can do is entrust ourselves to God.”

Although campaigning for the Aug. 20 election will only begin on Thursday, all eight hopefuls vying to replace Lasso have promised to improve security, pledging improvements to the prison system, justice system and policing, as well as expanded border patrols.

Candidate Luisa Gonzalez has called for better living conditions in poor neighborhoods, education and more jobs so young people do not fall prey to gangs.

Regarded as one of the leading presidential hopefuls, Gonzalez is backed by former President Rafael Correa, who expanded social programs during his term and retains significant political influence, despite a conviction for corruption and his current residence in Belgium.

“(The criminals) have the power and I don’t have any faith that this will change with a new president,” said Maria Belen Gonzales, 30, who was forced to shut her clothing store in southern Guayaquil because of gang extortion.


Security forces say they broke up 764 criminal groups, seized 5,300 firearms and arrested 39,000 people nationally in the first half of the year, while forty-five alleged criminals were killed by police.

Half of 106 tonnes of drugs confiscated so far in 2023 were found in Guayaquil. In 2022 Ecuador seized 205 tonnes of drugs, principally cocaine.

But enforcement is only a bandage on growing security pressures at trafficking points like borders and ports, said ex-Army intelligence chief and analyst Mario Pazmino.

“Citizens are the prey of the criminal,” said Pazmino, adding security forces must have constant presence in public places.

Manual checks at Guayaquil’s ports led to the seizure of 38 tonnes of drugs so far this year, said area anti-narcotics director Darwin Sangoquiza. Seizures totaled just 44 tonnes during all of 2022.

Shipments of banana – Ecuador’s top agricultural export – are a particular target for traffickers, who have moved cocaine as far as Italy in containers of the fruit.

Some 7,000 containers of Ecuadorean bananas are shipped to Europe and the United States each week and exports were valued at $3.27 billion last year.

“We are not getting the security we were hoping for,” said Jose Hidalgo, head of the Ecuadorean Banana Exporters’ Association, which spent $100 million on security last year. “The effect on competitiveness is really serious.”

Lasso’s efforts to fight drug shipments – including a delayed plan to install a cargo scanning system – have fallen short, said Luis Cordova, a violence and conflict researcher at Universidad Central de Ecuador.

The next president will need a strong team of security advisors to tackle the problem, he said.


Related Articles

Back to top button