Ecuador was calm and peaceful. Now hitmen, kidnappers and robbers walk the streets

Police on Friday escort the coffin carrying the remains of slain presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio at the Camposanto Monteolivo cemetery, in Quito, Ecuador. (AP Photo/Carlos Noriega, File)

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador — Belen Diaz was walking home from college one evening when a motorcycle carrying two men made a menacing U-turn.

Terrified that she was about to be robbed for the eighth time in three years, the teaching student banged on a cab window until the driver drove her home. Diaz got away safe, but there was an unrelated fatal shooting the next day outside her gated community of two-story homes on the edge of the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil.


Ecuador was one of the calmest countries in Latin America until about three years ago. Today, criminals prowl relatively wealthy and working-class neighborhoods alike: professional hitmen, kidnappers, extortionists and thousands of thieves and robbers. Mexican and Colombian cartels have settled into coastal cities like Guayaquil and grabbed chunks of the trade shipping hundreds of millions of dollars of cocaine from neighboring Colombia and Peru to countries overseas.

One of the candidates in a special Aug. 20 presidential election had a famously tough stance on organized crime and corruption. Fernando Villavicencio was fatally shot in broad daylight Wednesday despite a security detail that included police and bodyguards.

“No one is safe from the insecurity in the country,” Anthony Garcia, who packs shrimp, said after the Villavicencio assassination. “We are at the hands of drug trafficking, of evil in its entirety.”

The country’s National Police tallied 3,568 violent deaths in the first six months of this year, far more than the 2,042 reported during the same period in 2022. That year ended with 4,600 violent deaths, the country’s highest in history and double the total in 2021.

The causes are complex. All, though, revolve around cocaine.

Cartel-aided gangs are battling for control of the streets, prisons and drug routes to the Pacific. Dwindling state coffers, political infighting, corruption and soaring debts created funding gaps in social and law-enforcement programs. The COVID-19 pandemic turned hungry children and unemployed adults into easy recruits for criminal groups.

Reports of robberies have soared. Data from the National Police show 31,485 cases were reported last year, about 11,000 more than in 2020.

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