A total of 210 tons of drugs seized in one year, a record. At least 4,500 killings last year, also a record. Children recruited by gangs. Prisons as centers for crime. Neighborhoods consumed by criminal feuds. And all this chaos financed by powerful outsiders with deep pockets and a lot of experience in the global drug trade.

Ecuador, on the western edge of South America, has in just a few years become the gold rush state of the drug trade, with major cartels from as far as Mexico and Albania joining forces with prison and street gangs, unleashing a wave of violence unlike anything else in the country. recent history

Fueling this turmoil is the world’s growing demand for cocaine. While many policymakers have focused on the opioid epidemic, such as fentanyl, which kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, the production of cocaine has. soared to record levelsa phenomenon that is now ruining Ecuadorian society, turning a once peaceful nation into a battlefield.

“People consume abroad,” said Major Edison Núñez, an intelligence officer with the Ecuadorian national police, “but they don’t understand the consequences that are happening here.”

It is not that Ecuador is new to the drug trade. Sandwiched between the world’s largest cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru, it has long served as an exit point for illicit products bound for North America and Europe.

But a boom in Colombia in the cultivation of the coca leaf, a basic ingredient in cocaine, has created a boom in the production of the drug – while years of lax policing of Ecuador’s drug-trafficking industry have made the country an increasingly attractive base for drug manufacturing and distribution. .

Drug-related violence began to increase around 2018, when local crime groups competed for better positions in the business. At first, violence was largely confined to prisons, where the population increased after tougher drug penalties and increased use of pretrial detention.

Finally, the government lost control of his penal system, where prisoners force other prisoners to pay for beds, services and security, and even hold the keys to their own prison blocks. Soon, prisons became operational bases for the drug trade, according to experts on Ecuador.

International organized crime saw a lucrative opportunity to expand operations. Today, Mexico’s most powerful cartels, Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generación, are land financiers, along with a group from the Balkans that the police call the Albanian mafia. Local prison and street gangs with names like Los Choneros and Los Tiguerones work with the international gangs, coordinating storage, transport and other activities, according to police.

Cocaine, or a precursor called coca base, enters Ecuador from Colombia and Peru, and then typically leaves by water from one of the country’s busy ports.

Of the roughly 300,000 shipping containers that leave each month from one of Ecuador’s most populous cities, Guayaquil — one of South America’s busiest ports — the authorities are able to trace only 20 percent of them, Major Núñez said.

Currently, drugs are transported from the ports of Ecuador hidden in reconstructed floors, in boxes of bananas, in pallets of wood and cacao, before eventually landing at parties in American university towns and clubs in European cities.

In Guayaquil, a humid city framed by green hills, with a metropolitan population of 3.5 million, rivalries between criminal groups have spilled into the street, producing a gruesome and public style of violence clearly aimed at instilling fear and exerting control.

Television news stations are regularly filled with stories of beheadings, car bombings, police killings, young men hanging from bridges and children shot dead outside their homes or schools.

“It’s so painful,” said one community leader, who asked not to be named for security reasons. The leader’s neighborhood has been transformed in recent years, with children as young as 13 forcibly recruited into criminal gangs. “They are under threat,” said the leader. “’Don’t you want to join? We will kill your family.”

In response, the president of Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso, a conservative, declared several states of emergency, sending the military into the streets to guard schools and businesses.

More recently, Los Choneros and others have found another source of income: extortion. Shopkeepers, community leaders, even water suppliers, waste collectors and schools are forced to pay taxes to criminal groups in exchange for their safety.

Inside prisons, blackmail has been common for years.

On a recent morning in Guayaquil, Katarine, a 30-year-old mother of three, sat on a sidewalk outside the country’s largest prison. Her husband, a banana farmer, had been arrested five days earlier, she said, after a street fight.

He called her from jail, she said, asking her to wire money to a bank account belonging to a gang. If she didn’t pay, he explained, he would be beaten, maybe electrocuted.

Katarine, who for security reasons asked that only her first name be used, later sent $263, about a month’s salary, which she obtained by pawning her. possessions

“I was beyond desperate,” she said, asking why the authorities were not doing more to control this practice. Every person thrown in jail, she said, was another taxpayer for the criminal groups.

The violence traumatized many Ecuadorians in part because the change in the country’s fortunes was so dramatic.

Between 2005 and 2015, Ecuador witnessed an extraordinary transformation, because millions of people rose from povertyriding the wave of an oil boom whose profits the president at the time, Rafael Correa, a leftist, poured into education, health care and other social programs.

Suddenly, housekeepers and bricklayers believed that their children might finish high school, become professionals, and live completely different lives than their parents. Today, those Ecuadorians watch their neighborhoods deteriorate amid crime, drugs and violence.

The decline of the country was also deepened by the pandemic, which, like elsewhere in the world, hit the economy hard. today, only 34 percent of Ecuadorians have adequate employment, according to government data, down from a high of nearly 50 percent a decade ago.

In some neighborhoods, community leaders say, financial hardship is pushing young people into crime, exacerbating the security crisis.

On another morning in Guayaquil, Ana Morales, 41, stood in a large cemetery, visiting a white crypt holding the remains of her son, Miguel, who had was a hairdresser and a father. Ms. Morales said that when work dried up during the pandemic, he stole a cell phone to pay for medicine and food, and she had him jailed.

That turned out to be a death sentence. While he was there, a riot broke out between prison gangs.

He was one of more than 600 people killed in prison clashes since 2019, according to the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, a Guayaquil nonprofit.

Mrs. Morales helped found the Committee of Relatives for Prison Justice, a group questioning the Ecuadorian state, accusing it of violating the human rights of prisoners and demanding extensive reparations.

Her goal is to speak for “the other mothers who are crying, who stayed in their homes holding their pillows.”

“We are in a terrible crisis,” she said, “both in the prisons and out in the streets.”

The crisis spread into the government, where some officials were accused of co-opting criminal groups. Journalists fled, prosecutors were killed and human rights activists silenced for researching or speaking out against crime or corruption.

Mr. Lasso’s approval rating is low, according to polls, and in May, facing impeachment on corruption charges, he dissolved the National Assembly and called for new elections. Ecuadorians will elect a new president and National Assembly in August, with a possible runoff in October, as the country finds itself at a political crossroads with violence on the rise.

In Guayaquil, the police tried to fight crime with night raids in high-violence areas.

One recent evening, a caravan of police vehicles roared through the Guayaquil a suburb of Durán. At half a dozen stops they poured out in body armor and black balaclavas, ordering men to the ground and sending children in pajamas screaming into their mothers’ arms.

They made three arrests over several hours, sometimes confiscating fist-sized white rocks, believed to be drugs, from inside a house.

Back in the car, the officers talked about the challenges they faced.

One officer, who requested anonymity so he could speak freely, said what Ecuador really needed was a leader with a laser-like focus on crime. One name he raised was that of the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, who has gained global attention, but also widespread allegations of human rights abuses, for his massive incarceration rate and low crime rate.

“We need someone like the man in El Salvador,” the officer said, explaining that he liked how Mr. Bukele “takes the reins on security.”

A lack of funds, the officer explained, meant officers paid out of their own pockets to repair their vehicles. Instead of radios, they used their own phones to communicate. Because the criminals have much better technology, he said, “we’re in an unequal battle.”

Reporting was contributed by Thalíe Ponce in Guayaquil, José María León in Quito and Genevieve Glatsky in Bogota.

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