Gang-torn Ecuadorian port city

Gang-torn Ecuadorian port city


Entire neighborhoods ruled by gangs, prison bloodbaths and police officers overwhelmed by criminal firepower: drug trafficking has turned the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil into a hotbed of violence.

The port city of 2.8 million, which hosts Saturday’s Copa Libertadores competition final, has seen scenes of incredible barbarism in recent years.

Hundreds of inmates were killed in numerous prison fights — many beheaded or burned — and civilians became increasingly involved in the gang warfare that rocked the city, which residents renamed “Guayakill.”

So far this year, the commercial hub of Ecuador has seen 1,200 murders — 60 percent more than 2021, according to official figures.

Since last year, nearly 400 inmates have died in several cities, most of them in Guayaquil, which has also been hit by a spate of car bombings and shocking scenes of bodies hanging from bridges.

And although the government has declared a state of emergency to allow troops to be deployed and increased the number of police officers in Guayaquil by over 1,000 to almost 10,000, some fear it is a losing battle.

“We used to deal with small arms… revolvers. But now on the streets we face American (automatic) rifles, grenades and explosive devices,” police forensic officer Luis Alfonso Merino told AFP.

“The violence has increased enormously.”

– guns, grenades –

Once a relatively peaceful neighbor to major cocaine producers Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has long been just part of the drug transit route.

But recently, traffickers with alleged ties to Mexican cartels like Sinaloa, the Gulf Clan and Los Zetas have expanded their domestic presence — vying for the fast-growing local market and access to the Port of Guayaquil for exports to Europe and the United States United States States.

The city’s prisons, where gangs also fight for dominance, are emblematic of the rapidly deteriorating security situation.

In one of the deadliest riots in Latin American history, 122 people were slaughtered at the notorious Guayas 1 prison in an hour-long rampage by inmates using guns, machetes and explosives last September.

“The state does not run the prisons,” Billy Navarrete of the CDH human rights NGO told AFP.

Instead, they are under the control of “criminal organizations with the complicity of law enforcement officials who allow, tolerate and enrich themselves from the arms trade,” he said.

The government has said it will step up enforcement. A record shipment of 210 tons of drugs was reported in 2021.

So far this year, the figure is 160 tons.

In a 2019 report, Ecuadorian intelligence said at least 26 criminal gangs are fighting for control of the lucrative drug market, but officials have since said the number is likely higher.

And according to operations chief Major Robinson Sanchez in Guayaquil, the gangs are “better armed than the police.”

– wolves against eagles –

Police and soldiers stand guard at the entrance to Socio Vivienda II, a run-down housing development and one of the most dangerous places in Guayaquil.

Two dozen others in black uniforms, bulletproof vests and balaclavas patrol the narrow streets on motorcycles.

Around 24,000 people live in Socio Vivienda’s three sectors in the crossfire of gang warfare, which has led to several public shootings since 2019 and forced school closures in recent weeks.

The gangs go by names like Lobos (wolves) and Tiguerones. The aguilas (eagles) are based higher up on the hill.

When the gangs began fighting each other, the community itself erected metal gates at the ends of the streets to prevent gang members from roaming freely.

But police removed these to ease access and now “bullets are racing from end to end,” said a 45-year-old community leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity in an atmosphere of fear.

– ‘Zombies’ and Guardians –

Patrol officers stop at a house in Socio Vivienda and force their way in.

They find no drugs, just three teenagers with “Tigueron” tattooed on their arms. It’s not enough to hold them.

The gangs use children as young as 10 as guards or informants, residents and police say.

As they “move up” in the organization, they earn the right to get tattooed—but not without committing a crime.

On the streets, it’s common to see doped users of “H” – a heroin residue sold for 25 cents a gram. They are known locally as “zombies”.

The community leader told AFP that luxury vehicles were freely coming and going, transporting drugs right under the noses of the police.

And when anxious families leave the neighborhood, gang members “move into” their homes immediately, he added.

So far this year, records show 252 murders in Socio Vivienda II alone, up from 66 in 2021.

Twenty-one murders were reported in Guayaquil over the weekend before Saturday’s Libertadores clash between Brazilian teams Flamengo and Athletico Paranaense.

Around 50,000 foreign fans are expected to attend the final on Saturday.

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