Ten killed, gangs unleash terror as Ecuador declares state of emergency

Gunmen storm TV station during live broadcast, more than 20 violent incidents reported as country lurches into crisis.

Ecuadorean soldiers frisk a man while on patrol in the streets of Cuenca, Ecuador, on January 9, 2024 [Fernando Machado/AFP]

At least 10 people have been killed in Ecuador in a series of attacks blamed on armed gangs, as the country plunges into chaos in what the new president has called an “internal armed conflict”.

President Daniel Noboa, 36, declared a 60-day state of emergency and nightly curfew on Monday following the escape of Jose Adolfo Macias, aka “Fito”, the leader of Ecuador’s biggest gang, Los Choneros. Macias was serving a 34-year sentence at the La Regional prison in the port city of Guayaquil.

Gangsters unleashed a wave of terror across the country and in several overcrowded prisons after eight people were killed and three were injured in attacks in Guayaquil, while two officers were “viciously murdered by armed criminals” in the nearby town of Nobol, police said late on Tuesday.

In retaliation, local gangs took several police officers hostage and set off explosions in several cities. Armed and hooded gang members stormed a studio of state-owned TC Television in Guayaquil with guns and explosives while cameras were rolling on Tuesday. The 13 gunmen were subsequently arrested.

Police leave the El Inca prison after a security operation due to riots, following the disappearance of Jose Adolfo Macias, alias 'Fito', leader of the Los Choneros criminal group
Police leave the El Inca prison after a security operation due to riots following the disappearance of Jose Adolfo Macias, alias ‘Fito’, leader of the Los Choneros criminal group, in Quito, Ecuador, on January 8, 2024 [Karen Toro/Reuters]

Guayaquil, a coastal city that is Ecuador’s largest, is considered the country’s most dangerous, with its ports a hub for drug smuggling.

“Authorities say there have been at least 23 different violent incidents in eight provinces, including a number of car bombs going off,” Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti reported from the capital, Quito.

“A number of police cars were incinerated and at least seven police officers were kidnapped by gang members,” he added.

This is the first big test for Noboa, a businessman who took office in November promising to crack down on soaring levels of violence in the South American country.

“I have just signed a state of emergency decree so that the armed forces have all the political and legal support for their actions,” Noboa said. “The time is over when drug trafficking convicts, hitmen and organised crime dictate to the government what to do.”

Violent deaths nationally rose to 8,008 in 2023, the government has said, nearly double the 2022 figure of more than 4,500. Drug violence has taken a heavy toll on the country since it became a key stop on the United States and Europe-bound cocaine trade.

The murder rate quadrupled from 2018 to 2022 and a record 200 tonnes of drugs were seized last year.

Security in Ecuador has been worsening since the COVID-19 pandemic, which also battered the economy.

Ecuadorian political analyst Adrian Perez Salazar says structural problems have led to the country’s problems with gangs and insecurity.

“The causes are multiple. What is particularly important to emphasise is that we are a dollarised economy, and so naturally it’s much easier for international crime to launder money in a place like Ecuador,” he told Al Jazeera.

“This is something that has been building up for many years as policies that were very lax in terms of immigration, very lax in terms of allowing gang leaders to establish dominance in areas such as prisons … and now in the last couple of years we are seeing the results of these structural problems being exacerbated.”

‘Wave of violence’

Shortly after the attack on the TV station, Noboa in a decree said he recognised an “internal armed conflict” was ongoing in Ecuador, and identified several criminal gangs as terrorist groups and military targets – including Los Choneros.

The decree ordered the armed forces to neutralise the groups.

“Today’s events show that the actions and decisions taken by the national government are gravely affecting criminal structures, and as an answer, they have created a wave of violence to frighten the populace,” Admiral Jaime Vela, head of the joint command of the armed forces, said on Tuesday, after a security meeting with Noboa and other officials.

The unrest led Peru’s government to declare an emergency along its border with Ecuador, while Brazil, Colombia and Chile expressed their support for the Ecuadorean government.

Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy and consulates general in Ecuador will be temporarily closed from January 10 until further notice, according to a statement on Wednesday. “The reopening to the public will be announced in due course,” the embassy said in a statement shared on Chinese social media sites.

In a post on X, the top US diplomat for Latin America Brian Nichols said Washington was “extremely concerned” by the uptick in violence, adding that the US was ready to assist Noboa’s administration.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies