06/24/2024

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Ecuador’s War on Gangs Stumbles in Key Coastal City

Ecuador’s War on Gangs Stumbles in Key Coastal City

Ecuador’s War on Gangs Stumbles in Key Coastal City

The Ecuadorian government is brandishing the results of its national gang crackdown as a victory, but continuing violence in the city of Durán demonstrates the policy’s uneven impact.

In recent weeks, there have been massacres, gang conflicts, and attacks against public officials in Durán, which sits directly across the Guayas River from Ecuador’s largest city and port hub, Guayaquil, one of the cities worst affected by drug-related violence.

In the latest disturbance, a bomb exploded on June 9 outside the offices of a graphic printing business owned by the family of Durán’s mayor Luis Chonillo. Police found pamphlets at the scene threatening Chonillo, local media sources reported.

SEE ALSO: Ecuadorians Back President’s Security Agenda But Challenges Await

The bomb came two weeks after criminals staged multiple attacks on Durán’s municipal government on May 27. Two car bombs were placed outside official buildings, one of which went off. Armed men also shot at the offices of Durán’s transit authority. No one was hurt in the attacks, the government announced, and the precise motives remain unclear.

“It is urgent to reinforce the intervention of the state in the hottest areas of the city,” Chonillo said in a post on X immediately following the attacks. “If Durán is besieged by belligerent forces, a strong response from security forces is necessary.”

A few weeks prior, on May 13, hitmen murdered the president of a bus cooperative. The next day, gunmen attacked a birthday party, leaving six dead and six injured. In response, Ecuador’s armed forces carried out raids in 20 different areas of Durán on May 17.

Since January, President Daniel Noboa has taken a hard line against Ecuador’s violent street gangs and drug trafficking groups, and put the South American country’s military on the frontline of the war on organized crime.  

This widely popular measure has brought a 16% decrease in homicides this year in Ecuador compared to the same period in 2023, Interior Ministry officials announced in a June 3 press conference.

“In five months, we managed to restore peace to Ecuadorians, something that had never been achieved before,” Noboa said on May 22 in a video posted to his social media accounts.

But violence in Durán has persisted in spite of the government’s militarized crackdown on the country’s gangs. 

Homicides in 2023 reached record levels in Durán, with 388 in the second half of the year. Those numbers seem to have dropped slightly in 2024, with 209 homicides between January 1 and May 31, according to police statistics obtained by InSight Crime. But even under the state of emergency, which authorized the military to enter Durán in pursuit of criminals, the municipality is still seeing rates of violence that were unprecedented before 2023.

Monthly homicides in Durán have risen since January 2023.

Security experts have attributed much of the violence in Durán to ongoing disputes between the Chone Killers and Latin Kings, criminal groups that battle for drug dealing and extortion territory in the city’s streets. Durán’s location also makes it a strategic staging area for cocaine en route to Guayaquil’s ports for export to consumer markets in North America and Europe. 

InSight Crime Analysis

A convergence of factors, including gang fragmentation and corruption, have curbed the effectiveness of Noboa’s heavy-handed security policy in Durán. 

The state of emergency has forced many of Durán’s criminal leaders to leave the country and severed communication with leaders in Ecuador’s prison system.

This has empowered the city’s mid-level criminal commanders, who now see an opportunity to break into higher leadership positions, a government official, who chose to remain anonymous for security reasons, told InSight Crime.

“It is the hydra phenomenon. You get rid of one head, and three more emerge,” the official said.

SEE ALSO: Prisoner Torture and Abuse Rife in Ecuador’s Gang Crackdown

Panamanian authorities captured a high-profile Chone Killers leader from Durán, Julio Alberto Martínez Alcívar, alias “Negro Tulio,” on May 30. This could lead to more violence as other leaders rush to fill Negro Tulio’s shoes.

The power of Durán’s criminal groups extends beyond the streets and into the municipal government, an influence they use to shield themselves from military operations. Through corrupt actors in the city’s transit authority and police, gang members can monitor the movement of security forces in Durán and take precautions to avoid capture, current and former government officials told InSight Crime.

But at the root of Durán’s security struggles lies the city’s lack of public service provision. Many residents who lack plumbing have to pay exorbitant sums—up to $100 a month according to some Durán community leaders—just for water trucks to deliver water to their residences. The city lacks a public university, and a large trade school has remained abandoned since the pandemic. 

This has left many families struggling to get by and youth without opportunities, both of which have been exploited by street gangs.

“Children who are not fed well and who don’t get the attention they need are destined to fall into the wrong hands,” Padre Simón Mahish, a religious leader and educator who works in Durán, told InSight Crime.

Other parts of Ecuador, like Durán, have seen spikes in violence in 2024 amid Noboa’s military crackdown.

In Manabí, violence has jumped significantly as security operations against the Choneros drug trafficking gang appear to have produced violent splinter groups. In Los Ríos, the province with the highest homicide rate per capita in 2023, residents continue to suffer as a result of the ongoing battle between the Lobos and Choneros over valuable cocaine trafficking routes.

Featured Image: An aerial view of Durán from the other side of the Guayas River in Guayaquil. Credit: Anastasia Austin, InSight Crime.

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