The main city of Ecuador has become a true ghost city due to the impressive wave of violent crimes that has led Daniel Noboa, the newly elected president, to declare the Latin American country in a “state of war.” The streets of the port city of Guayaquil, of about 3 million people, remained eerily silent after 15 people were killed across the country in shootings, riots, arson and car bombings.
Garbage was piling up on the corners since the waste collection companies suspended their activities (as did schools, universities and government offices). On many of the city’s roads, usually clogged, there was almost no traffic and the few motorists who risked going out were speeding to reduce the risk. Most stores remained closed beyond the national 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew imposed by the government following this week’s violence.
On Wednesday night there was barely a soul in the city. “Guayaquil is a desert,” said José Luis Calderón, one of the journalists from the TC Televisión station who on Tuesday were kidnapped live by the dozen armed men who attacked the channel’s headquarters in Guayaquil.
Shortly after the daring assault on television, the country’s president declared a state of “internal armed conflict.” “We are in a state of war and we cannot give in to these terrorists,” Noboa said on Wednesday as security forces tried to regain control of the country’s streets and prisons, where according to official data there are still 178 guards and workers kidnapped by gangsters linked to Mexican drug cartels.
“These criminals can be sure that we will not hesitate for a second in whatever it takes to protect our citizens… If we have to give our lives to defend the population, we will do it,” Marcelo Gutiérrez (38) said on Thursday. , Navy spokesperson, during a patrol in the Caraguay seafood market.
With his soldiers armed with assault rifles and advancing through the market, Gutiérrez also said that the authorities were fighting back and would win. The situation in Guayaquil was under control and the port city was gradually returning to normal, he added. But on Wednesday and Thursday, Guardian journalists did not find many signs of security forces on the streets.
Ground zero for this week’s outbreak of violence was La Regional, a high-security prison on the northern outskirts of Guayaquil where until recently José Adolfo Macías Villamar, leader of the powerful Los Choneros gang (linked to the Mexican Sinaloa cartel) and one of the most well-known criminals in the country.
Macías apparently escaped from his cell over the weekend, triggering a surprising outbreak of chaos and violence in a country long considered among the most peaceful in South America.
After the disappearance of Macías, nicknamed Fito, other inmates took dozens of guards hostage. Videos showing the murder of security agents, some of them apparently fake, spread like wildfire on social networks. At least eight people died and two were injured on Tuesday, the height of the violence that was dubbed by a newspaper as Guayaquil’s “day of terror.”
“Tuesday was ugly, like an earthquake, or a tsunami, or some kind of natural disaster,” newspaper seller Marco Flores (43) said at noon on Thursday, flanked by soldiers with rifles in the vicinity of the regional prison.
Extra, the tabloid newspaper that Flores sells, offered a chilling snapshot of the violence plaguing Ecuador, a country that has seen its murder rate skyrocket in the last five years as its importance in cocaine trafficking from South America to Europe grew. .
One of the Extra articles highlighted the heroism of a security guard who took a schoolgirl wounded by a stray bullet to the hospital on Tuesday. Another described the operation during which 35 special forces police recovered the TC Television studios and freed its journalists. A third article told the story of the armed vigilante groups that in Quito confront the gangs with machetes and baseball bats. Another recounted the abandonment of merchants from Guayaquil and Quito, who left their businesses to avoid being looted, or worse. “We’re safe, but we’re screwed,” said one frustrated shopkeeper.
In an editorial in the same newspaper, the almost 18 million citizens of Ecuador were asked to support the president in his unwavering fight to defeat more than 20 “terrorist” gangs, in the own words of Noboa, who was elected president in October. The gangs include the Lobos, the Latin Kings, the Chone Killers and another called AK47. “Now, more than at any other time in our history, it is crucial that the entire Ecuadorian society come together to carry out this unprecedented war,” the editorial said: “We have reached the breaking point and there is no other way to rescue our country”.
Several security and human rights experts fear that Noboa’s campaign to “neutralize” the gangs will lead to more deaths, rather than reducing them. According to Chris Dalby, director of the investigative journalism group specializing in organized crime World of Crime, “the short-term response is going to be an enormous repression.” “I think Noboa is going to increase the death toll, also for electoral reasons, although it is not something I agree with,” he said.
In Dalby’s opinion, with this week’s attacks the gang leaders have tried to intimidate Noboa after the youngest president in Ecuador’s history (he is 36 years old) hinted at a hard line inspired by that of Nayib Bukele, the authoritarian leader of El Salvador. “I think it was a unanimous feeling: ‘We’re going to show this guy what we can do and we’re going to take him down,’” Dalby said.