Ecuador’s narco gang violence: A timeline of the recent crisis

Long seen as stable in a region wracked with drug-related crime, Ecuador is now seeing brazen attacks that have shocked many.

A soldier patrols the streets of Quito
Soldiers patrol outside the government palace during a state of emergency in Quito, Ecuador, on Tuesday, January 9 [Dolores Ochoa/AP Photo]

Ecuador’s President Daniel Noboa has declared a state of emergency after at least 10 people were killed in a series of bold attacks in the past several days, as the South American country grapples with record gang-related violence.

The 60-day state of emergency and nightly curfew was imposed on Monday following the escape of a powerful gang leader from prison. On Tuesday night, an armed gang stormed a TV studio, forcing staff to lie and sit on the floor as shots and yelling were heard.

Noboa, 36, who came to power in November, has vowed to respond with force amid the spike in violence. He has also promised to reform prisons, which have emerged as a hot spot of drug violence.

“The time is over when drug trafficking convicts, hitmen and organised crime dictate to the government what to do,” Noboa said in a video posted on Instagram on Monday.

The involvement of Mexican and Colombian cartels has worsened the situation.

Last year about 8,000 people were victims of violent deaths, making 2023 one of the most violent years in Ecuador’s history. In the last five years, the murder rate has quadrupled.

Here’s a timeline of the most recent bouts of violence:

August 2023: Fernando Villavicencio, a presidential candidate and a former journalist, was assassinated on August 9, as he left a campaign rally in the capital, Quito. Villavicencio’s campaign promises had focused on a crackdown on gangs and his death came less than two weeks before the August 20 presidential vote.

Before his death, Villavicencio had said he’d received death threats from Jose Adolfo Macias or “Fito”, the jailed gang leader of the Los Choneros criminal group and one of Ecuador’s most powerful drug lords. Fito was found disappeared from jail on Sunday.

September 2023: Gangs attacked several locations throughout the country from September 1 onward, using car bombs and dynamite explosives. A bridge linking two cities in the coastal El Oro province was blown up. Gangs also attacked several prisons, and 50 guards and seven police officers were kidnapped. The attacks came weeks before the October 15 run-off election. The kidnapped security officials were released after a day.

Schools were also ordered shut for a few days from September 24 in the cities of Guayaquil and Duran, both violence hot spots, to reduce the risk to students.

January 2024

Sunday, January 7 –  Fito, the drug lord, escaped the La Regional jail in Guayaquil hours before he was set to be transferred to a maximum security prison. The transfer of prisoners is part of President Noboa’s initiative to reform prisons, which have seen scores of inmate killings in recent months.

Fito, described by authorities as Ecuador’s “most wanted prisoner”, was sentenced to 34 years in 2011 for several crimes including murder and drug trafficking. His gang, Los Choneros, is known for wielding influence in Ecuador’s prisons. Two prison guards were detained for complicity in his escape.

Monday, January 8 – Ecuador’s prison authorities reported a string of riots in at least six jails. Guards were taken hostage by inmates who threatened to kill them should soldiers be sent in. Some 39 inmates were also reported to have broken out of a prison in the city of Riobamba, including Fabricio Colon Pico or “El Salvaje”, who is the leader of the Los Lobos criminal group. El Salvaje was also reportedly marked for a prison transfer.

President Noboa declared “a state of internal armed conflict” following the riots, deploying the military into the streets and into prisons to search for Fito and to bring order.

In addition to prison rioting came bombs that exploded in several locations in the country, forcing people to flee to their homes, as shops, schools and other public buildings were shut. Four police officers were kidnapped in the cities of Machala and Quito.

Noboa announced a nighttime curfew from 11pm (04:00 GMT) to 5am (10:00 GMT) daily. In his decree, he classified 22 gangs as “terrorist” organisations.

Tuesday, January 9 – At around 2pm local time, a group of masked and armed men brazenly attacked a local TV station. Their entry was broadcast live in the first few minutes: the men pointed guns at TV staff and asked them to lie on the floor. One of the armed men said the attack was because the authorities were “messing with the mafias,” before the signal was cut.

Authorities have arrested 13 suspected gunmen and said they’ve freed the hostages in the station. Police authorities say 10 people have been killed in this week’s violence.

Also on Tuesday, Peru declared a state of emergency along its northern border with Ecuador, fearing a spillover. Prime Minister Alberto Otarola said Peru would deploy troops in the area as the country aims to stop escaping gang leaders from entering its territory.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies