GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador, Feb 12 2024 (IPS) – “For a couple of years now we’ve been seeing the violence growing so fast,” said José, who asked not to give his last name for fear of reprisals he may face in Monte Sinai, a low-income neighborhood in Ecuador’s most populous city, Guayaquil.
José, a 45-year-old Venezuelan, came here looking for a better life in 2019. “You could scrape by, barely, but you could make a living,” he said.
For José, Ecuador offered an opportunity for a peaceful life that allowed him to cover his expenses and raise his three children, something he could no longer do in his native Venezuela. He first moved to a shantytown in this part of western Guayaquil, which is also the country’s main port and one of its two economic hubs, along with Quito, the capital.
José paused before telling IPS: “In the last two years, the violence has accelerated, it’s impossible to live.”
This South American country has recently become one of the most violent in Latin America and the world. And José’s anxious observations coincide with the analysis of different organizations and experts.
Ecuador’s geographic position between two cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru, make it a strategic location for drug distribution across the Pacific Ocean.
The demand for drug trafficking, the gradual economic devastation and the weakening of the country’s political system exacerbated in 2023 with the dissolution of the legislature and a call for early elections, helped strengthen criminal gangs, which began to take root in Ecuador as part of the chain of trafficking of cocaine and other drugs.
Growing institutional corruption enabled the gangs to infiltrate the police and the prison system, making it easier for imprisoned criminal leaders to turn prison facilities, intended for rehabilitation, into their centers of operations and expansion.
In the gangs’ struggle to gain control, in 2021, the first large-scale massacre inside a prison in Ecuador occurred, something that became routine as the violence escalated.
For years in Ecuador, criminal organizations have been coordinating their actions against the State, according to Renato Rivera-Rhon, an organized crime and security analyst. “Prisons are an environment of opportunity for organized crime in Ecuador,” he said in an interview with InSightCrime, an organization that focuses on criminal activities.
Rivera-Rhon mentioned that networks within prisons facilitate dialogue, and gang leaders have lawyers within the network, indicating the existence of a web of a certain level of agreements between organized crime gangs.
José told IPS how he went from being a street vendor outside schools in Guayaquil without any complications to becoming a victim of extortion, forced to make “protection payments” known locally as “vacunas” or vaccines.
Monte Sinai was one of the first areas in Guayaquil where residents and business owners became the victims of criminal gangs who began demanding “vacunas”, although none of the residents consulted by IPS would identify the group that controls the area, and they never refer to it by name.
The extortion method varies depending on the business and the payment can be demanded weekly, monthly or, as in José’s case, daily. “One of them (a gang member) would hang around when I was selling outside the schools, and would keep track of how much I sold and charge me a third of what I earned that day,” José said.
“You can’t live like this. They don’t let you do anything, you can’t survive,” he complained.
One of José’s three sons was also a victim of extortion when he set up a fast food business selling mainly hamburgers.
Friends of José told him that when they rode on public transportation buses, people would get on and ask for “a little donation,” which was actually another form of extortion. The charge was one dollar, which they had to plan for on top of the 0.35 cent fare.
“You prefer not to ride the bus, because you don’t have the money to pay a dollar for each trip,” said a friend of José’s who preferred not to be identified.
Monte Sinai is a rapidly growing neighborhood, a city within a city as some demographers call it, where a large number of people make a living in the informal economy.
In Ecuador, a country of some 17 million inhabitants, where more than 3.6 million people live in Greater Guayaquil, over 50 percent of the economically active population works in the informal economy.
The growth of gangs in Ecuador took hold gradually, in poor areas such as Monte Sinai, and their presence and control boomed during the last two years. Bomb threats, sporadic detonations, leaflets in which gangs threaten individuals or groups such as immigrants, and an increase in robberies are reflections of the violent control exercised by these groups.
The activity of the gangs has spread throughout the country, in an escalation that has reached the point of total chaos at times, such as on Jan. 9.
That day, a television station was taken over by a gang in Guayaquil, there were bomb threats in several cities and shootings near judicial entities, which led the government to declare a state of emergency.
The state of emergency allowed for joint military and police action in the streets and prisons, under the premise that the State is in conflict with armed criminal groups.
Rivera-Rhon stressed that on Jan. 9, the alliances and ties between criminal gangs were demonstrated by the scope and coordination of the chaos in the country and the fear provoked among the public.
He said that “if you look at things from the point of view of someone in the capital, law enforcement has a monopoly of force, but this is not the case in rural areas, where there is total abandonment by the State.”
The expert on crime mentioned how in localities on the border with Colombia, there was already a social order imposed by armed groups that “generated a contagion to other areas of the country” and wondered whether the State had control over the exercise of force in other parts of the country and neighborhoods in cities such as Guayaquil.
Carlos Carrión, secretary of the Fundación Desaparecidos en Ecuador (Foundation for Missing People), said abandonment by the State has been going on for decades. A resident of Jaramijó, a fishing village near the port city of Manta, for years he has led petitions for the repatriation of fishermen imprisoned in the United States for transporting drugs.
Carrión pointed to the lack of response at the State level and the growing control of drug trafficking networks that recruit fishermen, without any control by the armed forces. “Nobody seems to have cared for years, and look where we’ve ended up,” Carrión told IPS by telephone from Jaramijó, some 190 kilometers north of Guayaquil.
Lorenzo, 46, said the Jan. 9 violence was nothing new. In 2023 he had to move from Guayaquil to the port of Posorja, after he became the victim of robberies and closed down his small business.
“Outside the store there were four guys on a motorcycle. From far away, one of them pulled a gun on me and I didn’t know how to get away. I had a backpack, where I carried my phone. I also had my watch and money that I always carry, about 20 or 40 dollars. They took everything,” said Lorenzo, who had worked hard to open a small store selling food and other products in Monte Sinai.
He told IPS that “they said to me: ‘get out of here.’ They left quickly, after going around the same street twice.” It was the last episode of violence and extortion he put up with in Guayaquil and the one that led him to decide to close his shop and look for work in Posorja, a small fishing port 113 kilometers away.
“I used to live here, but now we’re doing better. I had my monthly income from the store, but I had to leave the house in Monte Sinai to rent in Posorja,” he said during one of his last Sunday visits to the neighborhood to see friends and check on his now empty house.
One of his sons, teenager Carlos, was with him on the Sunday he was interviewed by IPS in Monte Sinai. His two older sons have also moved out of the neighborhood.
Lorenzo’s biggest fear before leaving Monte Sinai was that something would happen to his children. He even considered emigrating in 2022, crossing the Darien Gap, after hearing about people who had made it through that dangerous stretch of Panamanian jungle to the United States.
Both José and Lorenzo lived in fear of the impact that the violence and increased insecurity could have on their families.
According to José, violence during 2023 in the area “increased by 70 percent.” And so far, according to his former neighbors, the armed forces have not yet arrived in Monte Sinaí, despite the fact that a state of emergency has been declared and that the area is notorious for the violence suffered by local residents.
José stays in contact with his former neighbors, a community that welcomed him with solidarity and to which he will always be grateful.
“I love Ecuador, I was welcomed here, but the situation had become unlivable,” he said from Quito, the capital, where he now sells candy at stop lights. At the end of January, José decided to move to Quito and check out the possibility of settling in this city, where he feels safer.
With most of Monte Sinai’s schools closed due to the violence, José had no alternative when he was left without a source of income and became subject to constant threats, he told IPS during a second meeting in Quito, 430 kilometers from his old life.
His eldest son sold the supplies for his fast food business and returned to Venezuela, while his two teenagers are still in Guayaquil, waiting for their father to get everything ready in Quito.
Lorenzo is no longer returning to Monte Sinai, he told IPS by telephone from Pasorj a few days after the interview there, because both he and his son Carlos received new threats. He is looking for alternatives to move to the coastal province of Manabí, which is also affected by violence, although to a lesser degree than Guayas province, of which Guayaquil is the capital.
José finds some consolation in living in Quito and being able to go out on the street with a little more peace of mind. He quotes a friend who stayed in Guayaquil: “Back there, the only thing they don’t charge us for is breathing.”
© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service