Chaos Erupts in Ecuador as Gang Violence Escalates, Leaving At Least 10 Dead

In a series of brutal attacks blamed on armed gangs, Ecuador has descended into chaos, with a death toll of at least 10 people. President Daniel Noboa, 36, has declared a 60-day state of emergency and imposed a nightly curfew following the escape of Jose Adolfo Macias, also known as “Fito,” the leader of Ecuador’s largest gang, Los Choneros. Macias had been serving a 34-year sentence at the La Regional prison in Guayaquil.

The violence erupted with eight people killed and three injured in attacks in Guayaquil. Two officers were “viciously murdered by armed criminals” in the nearby town of Nobol, according to police reports on Tuesday. In response, local gangs took police officers hostage, set off explosions in several cities, and even stormed a state-owned TC Television studio in Guayaquil with guns and explosives. Thirteen 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]

The situation has escalated with authorities reporting at least 23 violent incidents in eight provinces, including car bombs detonating in various locations. Gangs targeted police cars, kidnapping at least seven officers. This wave of violence marks the first major challenge for President Noboa, who assumed office in November with a promise to tackle the rising levels of violence in the country.

President Noboa signed a state of emergency decree, granting political and legal support to the armed forces. He stated, “The time is over when drug trafficking convicts, hitmen, and organized crime dictate to the government what to do.”

The surge in violence follows a disturbing trend, with the government revealing that violent deaths in the country reached 8,008 in 2023, nearly double the figure of 4,500 recorded in 2022. Drug-related violence has significantly impacted Ecuador, serving as a crucial stop on the cocaine trade route to the United States and Europe. Last year, a record 200 tonnes of drugs were seized.

The security situation in Ecuador has worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also severely affected the country’s economy. Analysts point to structural problems as contributing factors, emphasizing lax immigration policies and insufficient measures against gang dominance in prisons.

Acknowledging the severity of the situation, President Noboa recognized an “internal armed conflict” in Ecuador and identified criminal gangs, including Los Choneros, as terrorist groups and military targets. The president’s decree authorized the armed forces to neutralize these groups.

The unrest has prompted Peru to declare an emergency along its border with Ecuador, while Brazil, Colombia, and Chile have expressed their support for the Ecuadorean government. In an unexpected development, the Chinese embassy and consulates general in Ecuador announced temporary closures starting January 10 due to the ongoing turmoil.

Expressing concern over the escalating violence, the top US diplomat for Latin America, Brian Nichols, stated that Washington is “extremely concerned” and stands ready to assist President Noboa’s administration in addressing the crisis. The situation remains fluid, with the international community closely monitoring developments in Ecuador.

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