Juan P. Villasmil

Ecuador’s gangs could trigger civil war

Ecuadorian police attempt to retake a prison from gang members (Getty)

Ecuador’s most-wanted prisoner escaped from a maximum-security detention center in the port city of Guayaquil on Sunday. Chaos has reigned in the South American country since then, with President Daniel Noboa – who was inaugurated fewer than 50 days ago – declaring a nationwide state of emergency for 60 days on Monday.

The Ecuadorian government appears ready to deploy its full forces after years of escalating discord with the gangs

The prisoner, José ‘Fito’ Macías Villamar, is the leader of Los Choneros, one of Ecuador’s fiercest gangs. The group has humble beginnings, acting as the military wing of Colombian narcos in the 1990s, but has since has evolved into an expansive and internally divided prison gang.

Three years ago, in a coordinated attack in three detention centres that led to the largest prison riot in the country’s history, inmate members of an off-shoot of Los Choneros went after the main organisation, leaving 75 prisoners dead. Incidents like this one, plus kidnappings and shootings, aided in the rise of the businessman-turned-president, who like El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele is not only young but also a fan of building mega-jails. In fact, a few days before Fito escaped, Noboa announced his plan to construct such facilities.

Now the Ecuadorian president faces his first major security test. Some are already calling the conflict a civil war. Wikipedia even had a ‘Ecuadorian Civil War’ page that was edited on Tuesday’s afternoon to add ‘2024 conflict in Ecuador’. Is it a war, though, or did Wikipedia prove high-school teachers right? It depends on who you ask. The scale of the conflict, not the nature of it, seems to be the only component lacking to label the situation a war. According to Noboa, for some of the nation’s top gang leaders, the answer is more straightforward: this is war.

On his X account Tuesday, Noboa listed 22 groups, including Los Choneros, that the country’s armed forces has been tasked to neutralise.

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