Ecuadorean anti-narcotics police stand guard next to packs of cocaine from a 3-ton shipment seized from a container of bananas, in the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador, on April 1, 2022. Photo by MARCOS PIN/AFP via Getty Images

Mexican Cartels Are Turning Once-Peaceful Ecuador Into a Narco War Zone

“We are fighting to contain this sickness that is threatening our country,” said an official of the violence created by Mexico's cartels in Ecuador.

ESMERALDAS, Ecuador — The graffiti image of a tiger with bared fangs makes clear who controls the neighborhood in this impoverished city near the Colombian border: The Tiguerones, an Ecuadorian gang allied with Mexico’s brutal Jalisco New Generation cartel. God help anyone who forgets it: Last fall two men were found hanging from a bridge, tied up by their feet, decapitated. One man, still clothed in shorts and a red shirt, hung so low his torso was almost touching the street; the other, dangling several feet higher, had a trash bag covering his body. A note left by the corpses suggested the men were killed for being informants. 


It was the kind of gruesome display of violence used to instill terror in cartel-dominated regions of Mexico, but the gangs were just getting started. Over the next 24 hours, they detonated a dozen car bombs and explosives in coordinated attacks in Esmeraldas and in Guayaquil, a port city to the south that’s become a major jumping off point for cocaine headed to Europe. They also killed five police officers and took seven prison guards hostage. Now, Ecuadorian soldiers travel in squads of no less than 30 to impose a 9 p.m. curfew on the city.

These are worrying signs of how the Mexican cartels have exported their drug war south and are quickly turning Ecuador into a war zone. The Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel are battling for dominance over the transport of cocaine from the vast, green coca fields of Colombia, through Ecuador to the United States and Europe. 


An Ecuadorian soldier patrols the streets in the town of San Lorenzo, a few miles south of the Colombian border. Photo by Miguel Fernández-Flores for VICE World News.

Ecuador has long been known as one of the most peaceful countries in Latin America, but its soaring murder rate is comparable to Medellin, Colombia during the reign of Pablo Escobar. Ecuador’s homicide rate jumped 245 percent between 2020 and 2022. Murders reached 26.6 per 100,000 residents in 2022 compared to 7.8 per 100,000 in the U.S., putting it right behind troubled Honduras and Venezuela. 

Gang members are being sent to cartel-financed training camps in northern Ecuador to learn how to kill, according to drug traffickers interviewed by VICE World News. Children are being recruited as assassins because under Ecuador’s legal system they face relatively little prison time if they are caught. 


This month, President Guillermo Lasso issued a decree ending a 12-year-old ban on civilians owning firearms, which he said would further the goal of defeating “delinquency, drug trafficking and organized crime.” The message? With police and the military unable to protect citizens from gang violence, access to weapons might give citizens a fighting chance. 

“We are fighting to contain this sickness that is threatening our country,” said Ecuadorian General Alexander Levoyer, a war veteran who now oversees the military’s operations along the border with Colombia.

Nestled between the world’s two biggest cocaine suppliers, Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has long been a transit hub for cocaine because of its geography and lax security. But if Ecuador was once a thoroughfare for cocaine, it’s now a superhighway. Ecuadorian authorities are seizing so much cocaine they are turning it into concrete.  
“We are a small country up against big mafias that have enormous financial resources,” said Pablo Ramírez, Ecuador's anti-narcotics chief. “Ecuador has institutional weaknesses that allow these criminal organizations to take advantage of our location between these two countries.” He estimated that 45 percent of the cocaine produced in Colombia now passes through Ecuador.

Mexican cartels have long played a supporting role in Ecuador's drug trade, but now they’re calling the shots, financing the production of cocaine by Colombian guerrilla groups, paying them to transport it into Ecuadorian territory, and then hiring Ecuadorian gangs to move the cocaine into ports and boats at sea. Flush with cash and weapons, the Ecuadorian gangs are waging a proxy war on the cartels’ behalf and fighting for power amongst themselves, turning the country into Latin America’s new killing fields.


A half dozen major gangs in Ecuador are now moving cocaine for international drug cartels. The Choneros, Gangsters, and Big Feet (the “Patones”) work for Sinaloa, while the Tiguerones, Wolves and Chonekillers are allied with Jalisco, according to Ecuadorian authorities and drug traffickers. The Alligators work for the Albanian mafia, one of Europe’s most powerful criminal organizations that has also fueled bloodshed in Ecuador.

The violence has triggered a mass exodus of Ecuadorians heading north toward the U.S. border. In just the first two months of 2023, immigration officials apprehended Ecuadorians at the southwest border 16,080 times—a stunning number considering that for most of the past two decades, fewer than 3,000 Ecuadorians arrived per year. There are now more Ecuadorians arriving at the U.S. border than Haitians or Salvadorans, and they are the number one nationality being detained by Mexican authorities. 

The port

If the Ecuadorian leg of the cocaine supply chain begins in the green fields of Colombia, it often ends in the massive port in Guayaquil, a hot and humid coastal city of around 3 million residents that sits on the banks of the Guayas River. “Everyone knows who operates here. It’s evident by the amount of drugs we’re finding in the ports,” said Major Fernando Estevez Rivadeneira, who oversees inspections of containers for drugs at the port. Slight of stature and serious in demeanor, he wore a cap emblazoned with the words “Policia Nacional.”   


At Ecuador’s biggest port, 72 tons of seized cocaine are stored in containers in a parking lot, between an administrative building and an ecua-volley court. The cocaine is worth more than $1 billion in the U.S. Photo by Miguel Fernández-Flores for VICE World News.


Around 3,500 containers move through the port in Guayaquil each week. The port is a small city unto itself, with more than a mile of containers waiting to be shipped stacked four and five on top of each other, amid enormous cranes that pick them up like tweezers and tractor trailers that move them to the neighboring river.

Estevez showed us where the port keeps the cocaine it seizes until it can be destroyed: in a dozen containers stacked on top of each other in one of the port’s parking lots, between an administrative building and an ecua-volley court, a variant of volleyball. The containers had 72 tons of cocaine in them, easily worth more than a billion dollars in the U.S., but security was light; workers took smoking breaks and played ball just feet away. 

With no working scanners, the task of searching the containers that pass through the port falls to officials and 39 drug-sniffing Belgian shepherds donated by the U.S. government. The dogs can only reliably search three containers a day, Estevez said.

As he watched, authorities painstakingly inspected two containers by hand. One was packed with leather headed for Germany by a company that had little record of exports, which authorities considered suspicious. The other contained boxes of bananas destined for Saudi Arabia—Ecuador is the world’s largest banana exporter—and authorities went so far as to slice open the fruit to ensure no cocaine was hidden inside. But the port only has the capacity to manually inspect some 30 percent of the containers that pass through, and just five percent in such detail, Estevez said.  


Meanwhile, the Mexican cartels keep innovating, getting better and better at hiding cocaine in plain sight. One high-ranking chemist for the Sinaloa Cartel told VICE World News the cartel has used industrial-sized magnets to attach boxes of cocaine to the bottom of containers.

Before containers can be shipped out of Guayaquil, the cocaine must be transported from Colombia. 

The driver and the cook

We met an Ecuadorian man from Esmeraldas who spent years as a driver transporting cocaine from the Colombian border to Guayaquil for a group allied with the Sinaloa Cartel. He’s now under intelligence surveillance and agreed to talk at a hotel in Ecuador’s capital, Quito. Small and strong, only his trembling hands belied his nervousness as he explained how he wants to get out of the drug trade for the sake of his family. He agreed to speak with us on the condition of anonymity.  

Like many people who work for drug trafficking groups, he was sent to training camps to learn how to defend himself and suss out the enemy—rival groups and the military. He calmly described how he would kill if required. “Heart, head, abdomen,”  he said, pointing his finger as if it were a gun. 

The driver transported cocaine shipments to the Guayaquil port two to three times a month, he said. He moved between one and two tons per trip—each trip took around 12 hours and he made around $1,000 per run, he said. Police officers were paid bribes along the way to help move the drugs. “Even the [police] chiefs.” But it wasn’t until 2019 that Ecuadorian gangs started openly working for Mexican cartels, he said. Before then, the Mexicans were operating, “but silently.”


And they were welcomed by some.

We spoke with a Colombian man who has worked in the drug trade since he was 10, first as a lookout and later as an assassin and a “cook.” He was wiry, unrepentant and laughed easily. He estimated that he murdered around 15 to 20 people in the course of his work, plus countless more in violent confrontations. The choice was clear, he said. “If I don’t do it, they will do it to me.” Plus, he said, he made more money in the drug trade than his friends who stuck to legal jobs. He agreed to talk with VICE World News on the condition of anonymity. 

“The more [Mexicans] entering the business, the better,” he said. “There will be a lot of work. We will escape poverty.”

The Colombian said that last year was a good one because the Sinaloa Cartel made big orders, including one for 7,000 kilos of cocaine—the biggest he’s ever seen. It’s a complex process that involves turning coca leaf into cocaine paste, and converting the paste into white-powder cocaine. He was among a crew that worked six weeks filling the order, for which he was paid around $3,000, he said. He hoped there were more orders like that, but didn’t expect he’d live long enough to enjoy all the spoils. He’d killed too many people and had too many enemies, he said, and expected to live another two or three years maximum.

“Once you enter the business, it’s very hard to leave,” the Colombian said. “You say you’re going to retire, but the [bosses] keep you in mind. You usually get out when you die.”


A tectonic shift in the region’s drug market opened the door wide for the Mexican cartels. The 2016 peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC, the country’s biggest guerrilla group, was a game changer. 

For decades, the FARC and other armed groups had overseen the production of cocaine in Colombia. The FARC’s dissolution left a power vacuum that Mexican cartels eventually filled. The smaller guerrilla groups that refused to put down their arms continued producing cocaine. Along the Ecuadorian border, the Sinaloa Cartel financed one guerrilla group; Jalisco another.

Cartel violence tends to draw heat from law enforcement and can be bad for business. But this hasn't stopped Ecuadorian gangs from waging a war within a war, financed by the Mexicans and Albanese mafia. Rivalries exploded after the assassination in December 2020 of an Ecuadorian gang boss known as Rasquiña in a shopping mall cafeteria. The leader of Ecuador’s biggest gang, the Choneros, Rasquiña exerted enormous power over the country’s drug routes. With Rasquiña gone, the Choneros began splintering and rival gangs started making a play for control. Murder rates skyrocketed. 

“The gangs began fighting and haven’t stopped since,” the cocaine driver said. It’s not just the control of routes and ports that are being contested, but command over the nation’s politicians, judges and prisons. Payments are made in a combination of high-powered weapons and money. “So the gangs all have these big weapons and they’ve become bold. That’s why they’re taking on even the police and military.”


The profit margins are enormous. In Colombia, a kilo of cocaine costs around $1,000. By the time it reaches Ecuador, the price has climbed to $3,000. In the U.S., the going rate for a kilo is around $20,000 and in Europe, as much as $40,000. Whatever cartel can move the most cocaine stands to make the most money. 

“The Mexican cartels are expanding not only north of the border but also south of the border and pretty much around the world,” said Derek Maltz, the former head of the DEA’s Special Operations Division. “They are corrupting government leaders and moving into those territories to expand their operations to build up their global enterprise.” 

He said Mexican cartels operate like elite businessmen, assessing profit versus risk. Right now, he said, it makes the most sense for them to ship cocaine to Europe because it’s more profitable and less risky than sending it to the U.S. “They are looking at it like a Fortune 500 company would in terms of what’s the best country for my product,” he said. “They are bombing Europeans with cocaine.”

Lasso, Ecuador’s conservative president, has made strong ties with the U.S. government, but he is persona non grata in Ecuador because of the surging violence—his approval ratings hover near 13 percent. He is also facing impeachment in Congress over unrelated charges of embezzlement. Earlier this year, Ecuadorians narrowly defeated a proposal by Lasso to allow for the extradition of drug traffickers to the U.S., a strategy that Mexico and Colombia rely on to take down kingpins.


With extradition off the table, Ecuador has resorted to locking up gang leaders and drug traffickers in the country’s overcrowded prisons, including in the infamous Litoral prison, Ecuador’s largest. 

The prison

Located on a busy road in Guayaquil, some 20 miles from the port, women line up outside to visit their husbands, sons or clients. The Ecuadorian driver, who was eventually caught transporting cocaine and sent to the Litoral, said inmates can buy sex for $50. “Parties, women, drink, sports, food—everything goes in there,” he said. Different gangs control different wings of the prison and they require inmates to pay for everything, including beds and mattresses. Inmates have keys to their cells, he said, and can wander at ease.


An empty wing in the Litoral prison that was the site of a deadly massacre. Inmates hid so many weapons in the concrete walls that authorities are having to scan the walls to find and remove them, or face tearing down the whole structure and starting over. Photo by Miguel Fernández-Flores for VICE World News.

The Litoral is the scene of the worst prison massacres in Ecuador; 119 inmates were killed in September 2021, and another 68 two months later. Inside, gangs wage war on one another, as well as oversee their drug trafficking operations. 

So many inmates have died in Ecuadorian prisons that their mothers have formed a support group to demand justice, led by Ana Morales, whose son died in a prison massacre in the Litoral in 2021. When we met in a park in Guayaquil she said her son’s head was “completely disfigured” from the violence. She learned of his death from videos circulating on Whatsapp, and said no prison or government official has ever reached out to offer condolences.

Ecuadorian authorities agreed to give VICE World News a tour of the Litoral and a neighboring maximum security prison under heavy guard. On the day we visited, it was in the high 80s and humid. We were patted down by prison guards and had to keep our cell phones in the car for security. There were no scanners—the prison system is still in the process of obtaining them.  


Gang signs cover the walls in the Litoral, Ecuador's biggest prison. Left: An alligator, a wolf, and a tiger refer to three powerful gangs that operate in Ecuador. Right: Los Choneros is Ecuador’s most powerful gang. Photos by Miguel Fernández-Flores for VICE World News.

In the Litoral, we visited a wing that had been the site of a massacre and was now empty. It was dark and damp, and intricately crafted graffiti of gang signs covered the walls. Authorities were trying to fix up the building so that it could be used again but they had a structural problem: inmates had hidden so many weapons in the concrete walls that authorities were having to scan the walls to find and remove them, or face tearing down the whole structure and starting over. And they weren’t just any weapons—there were guns and even grenades, said Santiago Chávez, Ecuador’s prison system. He said some of the weapons were sneaked in by visitors while others were flown in by drones.

The riots lasted hours and sometimes days, said Washington Barrezueta, an inmate in the Litoral’s sick and elderly wing. “There was shooting, grenades, tear gas,” he said.  “It was a civil war.”

Authorities also showed us a maximum security prison known as La Roca, or The Rock, a short distance from the Litoral. It had been closed since 2013 because of a massive prison break but reopened last year as a last-resort option for the gangs’ most notorious leaders. 

A small structure, it housed 22 gang leaders in cells that surrounded an indoor patio. There was a conjugal room for inmates to have intimate relations and an outdoor basketball court where inmates played ball with reggaeton music blaring. 

Inside, the men yelled insults at prison officials from behind bars and said their cells smelled and were full of shit, and that there were no doctors or medicine. They demanded to be interviewed—a request officials denied. The prison’s warden said the men were mad because authorities had carried out a raid that morning and found marijuana and cell phones, which they confiscated. The facility is also in the process of getting functioning scanners. 

Chávez said authorities were confronting a massively difficult situation and insisted that security had improved. “We have control, but not full control. And that’s what we are working on—to have full control of the prisons,” he said.

A day after our visit, assassins attempted to murder the director of the women’s wing of the Litoral prison. And the massacres continue: 12 inmates were killed on April 14 in the Litoral in another confrontation between gangs, and three inmates were murdered in The Rock on April 4 following a prison riot, authorities said.


Miles of coca fields, distinguishable from jungle canopy by their light green color, line the Colombian side of the border with Ecuador. Photo by Miguel Fernández-Flores for VICE World News.

In northern Ecuador, General Levoyer took us on a military helicopter to the border with Colombia. We flew past mile after mile of coca fields, distinguishable from jungle canopy by their light green color. The general pointed out that the coca fields stopped at the Ecuadorian border, and called Colombia a “bad neighbor” for not eradicating the fields. Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla rebel, has called the war on drugs a “categorical failure” and proposed ending the forced eradication of coca fields and decriminalizing small amounts of cocaine. The U.S. is vehemently opposed. 


Ecuadorian General Alexander Levoyer, a war veteran who now oversees the military’s operations along the border with Colombia. Photo by Miguel Fernández-Flores for VICE World News.

But Levoyer was keenly aware that he’s being asked to wage a war on drug traffickers that won’t be won by guns alone. Transporting cocaine is more profitable than working the African palm plantations that fill the Ecuadorian side of the border. And Ecuadorian fishermen are even reselling state-subsidized gasoline to drug traffickers for cocaine production, he said, because it’s more profitable than fishing. 

“Many people live off of drug trafficking. They provide the ingredients, they sell them, they grow [the leaves], they dedicate themselves to transporting it,” he said. “As long as we don’t offer alternatives to drug trafficking, it’s going to take a while” to stop the trade. 

Arturo Torres contributed reporting to this story