Gangs Are Hanging Bodies From Bridges as Ecuador’s Drug Violence Soars

The macabre scene mimics a tactic used by cartels in Mexico's drug war.
Relatives wait for news outside of an Ecuador prison after riots left over 50 dead in February 2021.
Relatives wait for news outside of an Ecuador prison after riots left over 50 dead in February 2021. (Photo: Marcos Pin Mendez/AFP via Getty Images)

The discovery this week of two bodies hanging from a bridge in Ecuador marks an escalation in an increasingly bloody and aggressive drug war that has plunged the country into crisis. 

The bodies were found on Feb. 14 hanging from a pedestrian bridge over a major road in a neighborhood outside Guayaquil, a port city that is an epicenter of Ecuador’s violence. Deputy Police Commander Marcelo Cortez said in a news conference that he didn’t know how the bodies got there, but said that family members reported that the victims had gone missing three days earlier. Cortez said the police had opened an investigation into whether the murders were connected to the seizure in Guayaquil a day earlier of seven tons of cocaine from a shipment of bananas bound for Belgium.

Ecuador is a prominent drug trans-shipment point because it borders coca-producing countries Colombia and Peru. Authorities have said criminal gangs with ties to Mexican drug cartels have also started operating in the country, possibly fueling the escalation in violence. By hanging bodies from a bridge, the criminals were mimicking one of the bloodiest tactics of Mexico’s drug war, intended to intimidate rivals.


Durán, the suburb outside Guayaquil where the bodies were found, has been plagued by violence, rattled by shootings in broad daylight and the discovery of at least five decapitated heads since November, according to El Universo newspaper.

Ecuador saw enormous gang violence during the first decade of the 2000s. In 2007, the country took a novel approach by trying to legitimize gangs and incorporate them into civic life rather than targeting their members as criminals. The government allowed gangs to register as cultural groups, which in turn gave them a chance to receive government funding for education and community projects. Over the next decade, murder rates plummeted. 

But murders began climbing again in 2016 and skyrocketed last year.

Nora Brito, a fellow with the International Crisis Group in Ecuador investigating security issues, said the rising violence stems from a combination of factors. Colombia, she said, is producing "incredible amounts of cocaine” which is being sent to Ecuador. Because Ecuador closed its ports for long periods during the pandemic, the drugs had nowhere to go. They are finally being shipped, heightening the violence.

“There is so much more that needs to be exported, and the drug cartels are fighting for control,” Brito said. “Where to send them, what routes, how to do it.”

Finally, Brito said, the consequences of austerity measures enacted under Ecuador's previous president, including fewer rehabilitation programs inside prisons, are being felt now.

The number of murders in Ecuador rose more than 80 percent last year, to 2,494, up from 1,371 in 2020, according to statistics from the Government Ministry. Part of the spike reflects  an epidemic of violence in the country’s prisons that killed more than 300 inmates. In November, a massacre in Litoral Penitentiary, an overcrowded and gang-controlled prison in Guayaquil, killed 68 inmates. In September, more than 100 people died in the same prison following a bloody riot.

Ecuador’s president, Guillermo Lasso, a conservative who took office in May, declared a state of emergency in October and ordered troops onto the streets to address the violence. Under the executive order, authorities were given the power to restrict freedom of movement and gatherings.

According to Insight Crime, rival gangs seeking control over the drug trade have fueled the violence in Guayaquil. The Chone Killers gang, led by Benjamín Camacho, known as “Ben 10,” were an armed wing of the Choneros gang until they turned on the group in 2021.