Crisis in Ecuador following spurt of violence and rumors of a government deal with gangs

The announcement of a peace agreement among criminal gangs came days after a prison riot at the Litoral Penitentiary in Guayaquil claimed the lives of 31 inmates, and the murder of the mayor of the city of Manta, which forced the Lasso government to declare two states of emergency in two days

July 29, 2023 by Tanya Wadhwa
Los Lobos gang posted a public message declaring a peace agreement and thanked the country's interior minister Juan Zapata for allegedly working with them. Photo: Screenshot

Just weeks ahead of Ecuador’s early general elections, the country is facing an unprecedented crisis due to a spike in violence and allegations of deals being made between the government and criminal groups. Videos have circulated on social media depicting students ducking for cover in schools amid gunfire between drug trafficking gangs in Esmeraldas, of assassination attempts against public officials, and of public messages from heavily armed gang leaders announcing peace agreements.

The developments have ignited deep concern across the country and deepened the ongoing political crisis, made acutely worse when President Guillermo Lasso activated the cross-death measure on May 17, dissolved the country’s National Assembly, and called for early general elections.

Heavy criticisms have been leveled at the government of Lasso amidst the rising insecurity across the country. Luisa González, the presidential candidate for the leftist Citizen Revolution Movement party, stated: “It is outrageous to see a totally inoperative government. That it is the leaders of criminal gangs who are speaking out only means one thing: the gangs are in control of the country and not the president of the Republic.”

What has happened in Ecuador in the past couple of weeks?

Prison riots and political assassinations

After three months of relative calm, the Litoral Penitentiary or CPL Guayas 1 in Guayaquil city, Guayas province was once again the scene of violent riots between July 22 and 25, 2023. On July 22, clashes between rival criminal gangs Los Lobos and Los Tiguerones broke out at Litoral. The inmates used firearms as well as explosives during the confrontations that lasted until July 25. According to the Prosecutor’s Office, 31 prisoners were killed and 14 people, including a police officer, were injured in the brawls.

The riots in the Litoral Penitentiary also provoked a series of protests in other prisons. The inmates in the Latacunga, Riobamba, Ambato, El Inca, Azogues and Esmeraldas prisons went on hunger strike and held over 120 people, including police officers, prison guides, administrative assistants and visitors, hostage to demand better sanitary conditions and food, among other issues.

This led Lasso to declare a 60-day state of emergency in the country’s 36 prisons on July 25, authorizing the entry of the Armed Forces into the prisons to regain control. Following the state of emergency, 1,500 members of the National Police and 1,200 members of the Armed Forces entered the Litoral Penitentiary to control the situation.

On July 26, the SNAI reported that the state security forces had regained control of the prison, and that the strike in other prisons had been lifted and the hostages released with the support of additional security personnel.

Meanwhile, the Prosecutor’s Office reported that it had reopened two previous investigations against the authorities: one looking into the murder of inmates in prisons and the other probing acts of terrorism due to the detonations and quantity of weapons and ammunition found inside the prisons in searches after recent incidents.

The prison emergency was the second state of emergency decreed by Lasso this week.

On Monday, July 24, Lasso also declared a state of emergency in the provinces of Manabí and Los Ríos, as well as in the city of Durán after the mayor of the city of Manta, Agustín Intriago, was shot dead on Sunday. Several attacks were also seen in the city center of Esmeraldas on July 25 including explosions outside the Prosecutors Office and National Electricity Corporation, as well as other acts of violence, which prompted authorities to temporarily suspend different activities, including in person classes. On July 28, two police officers were shot dead while they ate breakfast at a rest stop in Samborondón, in the Guayas province.

Prison crisis

Ecuador’s prisons have been plagued by shootings, riots and violent confrontations since 2021. The Lenín Moreno and Guillermo Lasso governments have failed to stop the violence. Lasso has regularly declared states of emergency in the country’s prisons in an effort to address the issue. According to official data, since January 2021, 485 prisoners have been killed in the state’s custody in different massacres in prisons.

The Litoral Penitentiary is Ecuador’s largest and one of the most dangerous prisons. Since 2021, it has recorded dozens of violent incidents and some of the most brutal riots and goriest massacres. A gang battle in September 2021 killed 125 inmates, with some prisoners beheaded or hacked to death with machetes. In April, 12 inmates were killed and three were injured during a riot. Last weekend, Litoral registered its eleventh massacre since 2021.

Government negotiations with gangs?

Following the eruption of violence and the declaration of a state of emergency, various criminal gangs operating in Ecuador, through videos released on social media networks, announced that they had reached an agreement to offer a period of peace in the country. They alluded to the fact that the peace pact had also been signed with the national government and the police. Meanwhile, the right-wing government of incumbent President Guillermo Lasso denied any type of agreement with criminal gangs.

On Tuesday, July 25, the leader of Los Choneros criminal gang, José Adolfo Macías Villamar, alias ‘Fito’, in a video message, announced that his gang had reached a peace agreement with Los Lobos, Los Tiguerones, Fatales, Latin Kings, Ben-10, M-18 and R-7 to end extortion, kidnapping and violent deaths. Macías also offered to turn in the weapons that criminal gangs possess in the country’s prisons to help pacify the situation of violent prison riots. In the video, allegedly recorded inside a prison in Guayaquil city, ‘Fito’ was seen surrounded by four other members, who were armed with pistols and rifles, and a police officer. It is important to note that the entry of cameras and weapons as well as Internet access are prohibited in prisons across the country. Ecuadorian digital news network, Primicias has alleged that Macías’ real objective behind the peace agreement is to regroup the micro gangs to lower tensions and assume full control in the prisons.

Hours following Fito’s video, the leader of the Chone Killers, Antonio Camacho, alias Ben-10, also spoke on social networks, confirming the truce announced by Macías. “I don’t want any more problems with Las Águilas, Latin Kings, Tiguerones and Fatales. I want to be calm. From my side, it’s going to be a total change,” said Camacho from hiding.

On Wednesday, July 26, a spokesman of the Tiguerones gang also announced a peace pact with Los Choneros, Las Águilas, M-18, R-7, Lobos, Latin Kings, Ben-10. In a video, broadcasted from the Esmeraldas prison, the spokesperson was seen sitting next to the director of the prison Iván Toledo, a priest and a woman, whom he referred to as the delegates of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and other gang members. Before them was a table that had over a dozen knives and machetes and two revolvers, which Toledo said that the gang members had handed over as a sign of their commitment to peace.

Likewise, on Wednesday night, the criminal group Los Lobos also disseminated a video in which they spoke of the agreement for peace in Ecuador. The spokesman, who had his face covered, clarified that Los Lobos had not circulated the pamphlets threatening the population with acts of terror. He also thanked Interior Minister Juan Zapata for supposedly listening to his request and reaching a peace dialogue “for the benefit of the entire country.” In addition, he warned, accompanied by dozens of gang members, that if the pact is not fulfilled, they have the strength and weapons to wage war.

The announcement of a peace agreement among criminal gangs came days after a prison riot at the Litoral Penitentiary in Guayaquil claimed the lives of 31 inmates, and violent incidents in other prisons and in the streets that forced the Lasso government to declare two states of emergency in two days.

Lasso denies reaching any agreement with criminals

Despite the participation of police officials in the video messages and gratitude expressed to the interior minister, Guillermo Lasso denied that his government had reached any agreement with organized crime in the country.

“Organized crime is trying to impose itself, but we are not giving in. I want to be emphatic: we have not made a pact with criminals as they pretend to show,” said Lasso on Thursday, July 27, during a ceremony held in the capital Quito for the delivery of ammunition to the National Police.

For his part, Zapata assured that no one in the government is authorized to sit down and talk with criminal groups. Regarding the police agent appearing in Fito’s video, Zapata said that an investigation had been opened.

Similarly, the director of National Comprehensive Care Service for Adults Deprived of Liberty and and Adolescent Offenders (SNAI), the state agency in charge of Ecuador’s penitentiaries, Guillermo Rodríguez stated that what was announced by these gangs was “a voluntary surrender (of weapons)” and stressed that “the pacts are among them and that the police have nothing to do with that issue.”

This is not the first time that the Lasso administration has been accused of having ties with organized crime. In January, Ecuadorian digital media outlet La Posta published a series of documents and audio recordings that linked various government officials and Lasso’s brother-in-law, Danilo Carrera, with alleged acts of corruption and the members of the Albanian mafia.

The publication of the report by the media outlet led the Prosecutor’s Office to initiate investigation against several public officials within public companies. It also led the opposition majority congress to start impeachment proceedings against Lasso. To avoid the possibility of being investigated and removed from office, in May, Lasso dissolved the country’s unicameral parliament and called for early presidential and legislative elections.

Read more: The Ecuador of Guillermo Lasso