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Business News/ News / Ecuador Was a Retirement Paradise for Americans. Then the Drug Gangs Arrived.
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Ecuador Was a Retirement Paradise for Americans. Then the Drug Gangs Arrived.


‘Magical’ beachfront towns have been transformed into violent transit points for cocaine; ‘there is so much grief watching mothers have to bury their sons.’

A police checkpoint south of Manta, Ecuador, last month.Premium
A police checkpoint south of Manta, Ecuador, last month.

MANTA, Ecuador—Bobbi de Winter had found her retirement paradise on this country’s coast, where tiny red crabs scuttle across pristine beaches, giant sea turtles lay their eggs and whales breach the warm Pacific waters.

De Winter and her husband, Andre, had recently finished building a house overlooking the Pacific, accessible by crossing a lush forest. They set up hammocks, planted banana and papaya trees, and hosted dinner parties as the sun set over the ocean.

“It is just magical," De Winter, a native of Atlanta, said while walking the beach. “I had never been to such a peaceful place."

Then came the drug gangs and horrific violence. Killings marred the once-sleepy district where they live, De Winter said, recalling how her husband once had to swerve his car to avoid a man who’d been shot in the street. A month after the De Winters finished their house, police found millions of dollars in cocaine stashed at a nearby beach, drugs that officers said were to be trafficked north on high-powered boats. A presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, was gunned down in August.

Worried about Ecuador’s deteriorating security, the De Winters now intend to sell.

“I had to let go of my dream," said De Winter.

Ecuadoreans and foreigners alike have had to dramatically alter their way of life as a country that had been known for its natural beauty and relative safety quickly turned into one of the world’s most violent. This year, Ecuador is on track to top 7,000 killings, seven times the number in 2018, government data shows.

Driving the carnage is the country’s transformation into a transshipment hub for drugs from neighboring Colombia, where cocaine production hit a record high. The disarmament of Colombian drug-trafficking guerrillas in 2016 led to a power vacuum as other gangs battled to take over the routes into Ecuador, with its hundreds of miles of unguarded coast.

Powerful local gangs help Mexican cartels and Albania mafia move the drugs to consumers in the U.S. and Europe. Police are outgunned, while the government has been distracted by protests and political gridlock following the pandemic.

President Guillermo Lasso, who, facing an impeachment vote, shut congress in May, says his government has seized record amounts of cocaine from what he calls narcoterrorists that threaten Ecuador’s democracy. He sent soldiers onto the streets in hard-hit coastal cities and has tried to wrest back control of prisons controlled by the gangs.

Last week the Biden administration, facing a surge of Ecuadorean migrants fleeing violence and poverty, signed an agreement with Quito to boost cooperation to combat illicit maritime activity, including drug trafficking.

So far, Ecuador hasn’t been able to stanch the bloodletting. Emergency-room doctors talk of how they have been held at gunpoint by gangsters to save their bullet-riddled comrades. Alberto Benavides, a Catholic priest who holds frequent funerals for homicide victims, said he ran for cover when gunmen opened fire at a recent service.

“I didn’t look back. It was traumatic," he said. “There is so much grief watching mothers have to bury their sons."

Last week, the government ordered thousands of children in the biggest city back to virtual classes amid parent concerns about gang violence at schools. Some teachers received WhatsApp messages purporting to be from one of the country’s biggest gangs threatening to kidnap students if they don’t make extortion payments. “We have people inside the school," one message read, accompanied by photos of guns.

Even though he has police protection, Ruben Balda, the prosecutor in charge of tackling organized crime in Manta, feels the danger. On a recent day, a decapitated goat was left outside his office. The last time that had happened another prosecutor was gunned down.

He takes precautions in a country on track to have a higher homicide rate than crime-ridden Venezuela and Honduras. Wooden bookshelves cover his office windows to prevent gunmen from firing at him from outside. He avoids taking the same route to and from work. His family rarely goes out.

“My children can’t play in the park, they don’t go to soccer or music classes," he said. “We never go to social events."

Winning convictions isn’t easy, even with the support Balda has from U.S. law-enforcement agencies. In December, a court here exonerated 18 defendants, some of them boat owners, who had been accused of using large vessels to refuel cocaine-laden speed boats.

“It was an awful message for our citizens and the criminals," Balda said of the ruling. “You feel powerless. We didn’t just dedicate a lot of time to the case, but we also confronted people with a lot of economic power, and that puts our lives at risk."

The surge of violence is buffeting Ecuador as it prepares for a second-round presidential vote on Oct. 15. Frontrunner Daniel Noboa, the 35-year-old son of one of Ecuador’s wealthiest men, has said he would militarize Ecuador’s porous borders and turn ships into prisons, positioning them in the Pacific. He pledged to generate jobs and improve schools, reducing poverty and undercutting the ability of gangs to recruit young members.

“We’re living an internal war," said Noboa, who campaigns with a bulletproof vest.

In December 2020, a Colombian hit man walked into a plush shopping mall here in Manta and pumped eight bullets into Jorge Luis Zambrano, head of the powerful Choneros gang that police say is allied with Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.

Sinaloa’s Mexican rival, Jalisco New Generation Cartel, ordered the homicide, police say, triggering Ecuador’s descent into violence as the Choneros lost its monopoly over drug routes and now battles other gangs for territory.

“Ecuador was caught unprepared," said Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “I don’t think anybody really saw this situation coming."

Now, in coastal cities like Manta, the stronghold of the Choneros, police say safe houses for hit men have sprouted up. The assassins only step outside to kill, torching their getaway vehicles afterward, according to Manta’s police chief, Luis Cano.

“They’re invisible," he said in an interview.

Cano added that Ecuador’s coast was left unguarded after a 2009 decision by Ecuador to end American drug-interdiction flights out of an air base in Manta. “There isn’t any control," he said. “That’s why we’re coveted by drug traffickers."

The ubiquitous gangs generate cottage industries tied to the drug trade. Here in this region of sandy white beaches, the fishermen of Jaramijó near Manta who catch skipjack tuna now use their pangas—small, slow-moving boats—to traffic drugs north.

A crew of three can make $150,000 moving cocaine out to sea, past the famed Galápagos Islands and then north to drop-off points near Central America and Mexico, according to police. It’s a lot of money for fishermen who live in small, tin-roofed homes and were accustomed to earning $20 on a good day of fishing.

“The necessity is so big, and I’m not ashamed to say it, that there are days when we lie down without eating anything because we don’t have money," said a 64-year-old woman in Jaramijó whose son was jailed for trafficking cocaine on his boat.

Fishermen successful at trafficking cocaine spend their earnings on new cars and partying, police say. But there is always peril in the underworld that they have joined: Gangsters kidnap and force some of them to hand over their cash.

Security companies have seen a boom in business as the wealthy hire bodyguards and bulletproof their vehicles. One company developed a contraption that allows drivers to spray a burst of grayish cloud from their vehicle, providing a moment to escape carjackers.

“It’s like taking sand in the face," said Jhon Molina, who developed the system with his father after a relative was robbed at gunpoint in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city, which is patrolled by soldiers.

Jess Wiseman, a native of New Orleans, moved to the popular beach town of Salinas, 70 miles north of Guayaquil, in December with plans to start a distillery. He had read that Ecuador was one of Latin America’s safest places.

“I was dealing with information lag when I was doing my homework," he said.

When he arrived, he heard about rampant extortion of businesses. A few months later, an Italian restaurant owner in Guayaquil was kidnapped in broad daylight. He was freed six days later after paying a ransom, the businessman said.

“Everything I’m seeing now is that the violence has doubled in the last six months," said Wiseman. “That is pretty disturbing."

Just days ago, Wiseman moved to Medellín, the Colombian city that was once the world’s murder capital.

Guayaquil, a city whose port is used to transport cocaine, is ground zero for Ecuador’s violence. Guayas, the province where Guayaquil is located, is on track to top 3,000 killings this year, up from 291 in 2018, government figures show.

The bodies of young men from the city’s poor barrios fill up the Angel Maria Canales cemetery, where they are laid out in concrete crypts, stacked 10 high.

They include Ana Morales’s son, Miguel.

The 23-year-old was serving a three-year sentence for robbery at the notorious Litoral Penitentiary when he was killed in a September 2021 massacre of 122 inmates. Morales had rushed to the prison and saw her son’s body when the relative of another inmate did a video call and showed her images of the dead inside the prison walls.

“Imagine the pain," said Morales. “For a mother to see her son there, dismembered."

Morales said her son and other inmates were killed because they didn’t want to join one of the gangs fighting for control of prisons, from which security officials say jailed gang leaders orchestrate trafficking, extortion and homicides. She now leads a group of relatives that demands improved prison conditions, as well as justice for the families of those who’ve died behind bars.

Isabel Montaño’s son, Andy, was killed two months later at the same prison. She now spends her days caring for his two children, aged six and seven.

“You try to explain to them that God took him away, that he’s in heaven, that he’s taking care of us," said Montaño. “But they say, ‘I want my dad back, I don’t want him up there, I want him here.’ He was everything to them."

The prison violence quickly spread into the streets of Guayaquil—affecting institutions unaccustomed to the killings.

Two years ago, a half a dozen armed men burst into the emergency room of a public hospital in Guayaquil where Dr. Danilo Dávila was trying to save bullet-ridden patients, including a local crime boss.

Dressed in baseball caps and hoodies, the gangsters pointed their guns at Dávila, telling him to save their leader—or else.

“I told them, ‘Easy, we are going to do our job, just let me look at him,’" said Dávila. “But he was already gone."

They didn’t harm Dávila. But not long after, hit men walked into another hospital to finish off a man who had survived an attempted homicide. They sprayed his room with bullets. But the man had been discharged hours earlier. Another patient, a woman, had just settled in. She was killed, police said.

“That was the moment I knew that things were going to get really bad, that they were going to get out of control," said Raúl Alcívar, the director of the privately-run Hospital Alcívar.

He began preparing his hospital’s emergency room, accustomed to treating car accident victims, for the coming mayhem. He adopted security protocols used by hospitals in Mexico’s violent Sinaloa state, including shutting down access to the hospital after the arrival of gunshot victims.

The hospital installed bulletproof doors. Security personnel wear bulletproof vests. They’ve exchanged batons for 9mm Glock handguns. Last year, the hospital treated 160 patients with gunshot injuries, up from an average of 15 patients a year before the pandemic.

In June, a man shot about half a dozen times arrived at the hospital. Medical staff watched as his gang set up its own security perimeter to prevent another attack. A black SUV parked on a corner. Other vehicles drove around the hospital. A drone flew overhead. Burly men stood guard outside. The patient, a gang leader, survived.

But at the end of August, two brothers arrived after a rival gang shot them up a block from the hospital. Both men died, according to the hospital.

“There was a lot of internal damage," said Dávila, who now leads Hospital Alcívar’s emergency room. “Who could survive being shot more than 10 times?"

Write to Ryan Dubé at

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