In 2022, Ecuador has been plagued by outbreaks of violence linked to organized crime groups, including bombings, prison riots and the assassination of three prosecutors. “Narco” violence has become so acute that the government declared a state of emergency in November 2022. While this small Latin American country lies thousands of miles from southeastern Europe, its Instability stems in part from the activities of criminal groups in the West. From the Balkans which have become major players in cocaine trafficking from Ecuador to Western Europe. Rather than disrupting their activities, recent violence in Ecuador could help these groups consolidate their position in the lucrative local drug economy.
Big players in a major cocaine hub
Situated between two major cocaine-producing countries, Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has become a major hub for shipping cocaine to Europe. The port of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest, is both a major departure point for drugs and the epicenter of drug-related violence. From January to August 2022, 145 bombings were recorded in Ecuador, half of them in Guayaquil. The city has been ravaged by gang violence, gruesome murders, kidnappings and extortion. On several occasions – for example in August 2021 – the government was forced to declare a state of emergency due to the violence.
The port of Guayaquil in Ecuador is the epicenter of drug-related violence.
Photo: Michèle Westmorland
Violence has also spread to prisons where criminal groups coordinate cocaine trafficking. In 2021, some 316 inmates were killed in the country’s often overcrowded prisons. This trend has continued in 2022, including a bloody clash in October believed to have been sparked by a power struggle over drug distribution.
For some time, Ecuador has been grappling with political instability and a failing criminal justice system; it is considered one of the most unstable democracies in Latin America. In 2021, the country ranked 31st in the world on the Global Organized Crime Index. One of its highest crime scores (7.5 out of 10) was linked to the influence of foreign actors. Some of the most powerful and violent foreign actors are Mexican criminal groups that ship cocaine from Ecuador to the United States. However, criminal groups originating from the Western Balkans are also present and active in Ecuador. Although they managed to remain relatively discreet, their presence and activities left a trail of blood. Over the past five years, five Balkan nationals have been killed in Ecuador: three Albanians, a Serb and a Montenegrin. A Kosovo citizen was also injured. All of these cases are believed to be linked to cocaine trafficking and the conflicts it has created between foreign actors and between them and local criminal gangs.
Much of the narco-violence in Ecuador is believed to be linked to competition between local groups over who will provide protection from powerful foreign actors. Criminal groups in the Balkans work closely with local gangs to keep their operations running smoothly. For example, local groups help obtain cocaine, provide transportation, logistics and security, while providing links to corrupt politicians and allies in the security sector and justice system. Since it is a lucrative business, there is competition among local entrepreneurs in the violence market.
So far, the country’s criminal justice system has failed to bring the situation under control. Interviews with senior law enforcement officials in Ecuador reveal insufficient understanding of Western Balkan criminal groups and little cooperation with their counterparts in Southeast Europe. There is also a history of corruption. Those brave enough to stand up to criminals are often targeted. Three Ecuadorian prosecutors have been killed in 2022 – two in Manabi and one in Guayaquil.
The crisis as an opportunity for the Balkan groups
Paradoxically, the latest outbreak of violence could present an opportunity for Western Balkan criminal groups operating in Ecuador. First, they are not the target of violence. On the contrary, local Ecuadorian gangs fight to protect criminal groups in the Western Balkans and facilitate their operations, from which Ecuadorian gangs benefit. If Balkan groups keep their heads down and weather the storm, they could benefit from fierce gang rivalry by getting lower prices for cocaine and finding violent entrepreneurs willing to provide protection.
Second, violence on the streets and in prisons keeps law enforcement busy, allowing foreign actors to exploit the situation. Identifying Balkan traffickers in Latin American countries has not been easy, in part because of their multiple identities (including false documents), deep pockets and good connections. The new wave of violence makes it even more difficult for law enforcement officials to target discreet foreign groups when they have their hands full with violent local groups.
Third, Balkan criminal groups are taking advantage of the general chaos that has swept Ecuador due to increased violence. Borders would have become more porous and port security less strict. The chaos has also allowed some criminals to slip through the cracks of the justice system. For example, notorious Albanian drug trafficker Dritan Rexhepi, imprisoned in Ecuador since 2014, was placed under house arrest in late 2021. According to media reports, he has since disappeared from his home in Guayaquil, leaving him free to carry on his criminal activities.
The recent violence in Ecuador demonstrates the transnational nature of organized crime and the inconsistent state of international law enforcement. Law enforcement officials in Western and Southeastern Europe will not be able to disrupt major drug shipments unless they cooperate more with their counterparts in source countries like Ecuador. Meanwhile, Ecuador’s police will struggle to reduce violence in their own country unless they understand that drug-related violence is partly driven by competition among local groups to protect foreign criminal actors. In short, this is a good example of a “glocal” problem, in which local conditions are affected by global flows. As such, this requires a coordinated and multilateral solution.