The Fort Worth Press - 'Guayakill': Ecuadoran port city torn apart by gangs

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'Guayakill': Ecuadoran port city torn apart by gangs
'Guayakill': Ecuadoran port city torn apart by gangs / Photo: © AFP

'Guayakill': Ecuadoran port city torn apart by gangs

Entire neighborhoods run by gangs, prison bloodbaths and police overwhelmed by criminal firepower: Drug trafficking has transformed the Ecuadoran city of Guayaquil into a den of violence.

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The port city of 2.8 million people, which on Saturday hosts the final of the Copa Libertadores competition, has witnessed scenes of incredible barbarity in recent years.

Hundreds of inmates have been killed -- many beheaded or incinerated -- in numerous prison battles, and civilians have increasingly gotten caught up in the gang war rocking the city rebaptized "Guayakill" by inhabitants.

So far this year, the commercial heart of Ecuador has seen 1,200 murders -- 60 percent more than in 2021 according to official data.

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

And despite the government declaring states of emergency to allow for troop deployment and boosting police numbers in Guayaquil by over 1,000 to nearly 10,000, some fear it is a losing battle.

"We used to confront small arms... revolvers. But now on the streets we face American (automatic) rifles, grenades, explosive devices," police forensics official Luis Alfonso Merino told AFP.

"The violence has grown enormously."

- Rifles, grenades -

Once a relatively peaceful neighbor of major cocaine producers Colombia and Peru, Ecuador was long merely part of the drug transit route.

But recently, traffickers with suspected links to Mexican cartels such as Sinaloa, the Gulf Clan and Los Zetas have been expanding their domestic presence -- fighting over the fast-growing local market and access to the port of Guayaquil for exports to Europe and the United States.

The city's prisons, where gangs also battle it out for supremacy, are emblematic of the fast-declining security situation.

In one of the deadliest riots in Latin American history, 122 people were slaughtered at the infamous Guayas 1 penitentiary in September last year in an hours-long rampage by inmates wielding guns, machetes and explosives.

"The State does not govern 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 agents who allow, tolerate and enrich themselves with arms trafficking," he said.

The government has announced it was stepping up enforcement. In 2021, it reported a record haul of 210 tons of drugs.

So far this year, the figure stands at 160 tons.

In a 2019 report, Ecuadoran intelligence said there were at least 26 criminal gangs 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 vs Eagles -

At the entrance to Socio Vivienda II, an impoverished housing development and one of the most dangerous places in Guayaquil, police and soldiers stand guard.

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

Some 24,000 people live in Socio Vivienda's three sectors in the crossfire of the gang war that has resulted in several public shootouts since 2019 and forced school closures in recent weeks.

The gangs go by names such as Lobos (Wolves) and Tiguerones. The Aguilas (Eagles) are based higher up on the hill.

When the groups first started going head to head, the community itself erected metal gates at the ends of streets to prevent gang members from moving freely about.

But police removed these for ease of access, and now "the bullets zoom from one end to the other," said a community leader, 45, who spoke on condition of anonymity in an atmosphere of fear.

- 'Zombies' and sentinels -

Patrolling officers stop at a house in Socio Vivienda and enter by force.

They find no drugs, only three youngsters with "Tigueron" tattooed onto their arms. It is not enough to detain them.

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

As they "rise" in the organization, they earn the right to get tattooed -- but not without having committed a crime.

On the streets, it is common to see doped-up consumers of "H" -- a heroin residue sold for 25 cents per gram. They are known locally as "zombies."

The community leader told AFP that luxury vehicles moved in and out freely, transporting drugs right under the noses of police.

And as fearful families leave the neighborhood, gang members immediately "move in" to their homes, he added.

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

On the weekend preceding Saturday's Libertadores clash between Brazilian teams Flamengo and Athletico Paranaense, 21 murders were reported in Guayaquil.

Some 50,000 foreign fans are expected to turn out for Saturday's final.

S.Rocha--TFWP