Ecuador: uncontrolled violence in Guayaquil, the ghost town where the army monitors tattoos

First Corporal William, a strong and taciturn boy, like the men of another era, carries a Heckler & Koch rifle on his shoulder. He knows that at the slightest opportunity “you must kill the enemy”. First you shoot, then you ask. This is the mantra of the Ecuadorian armed forces today. This morning, as the sun beats down, he takes part in a check at the door of a seafood market, Caraguay, which is located at the mouth of the port of Guayaquil and smells of saltpeter. Fish sellers take down a Christmas tree topped with a crab dressed as Santa Claus. William sees a taxi driver with tattoos on his arms in the distance and stops him. He checks at a glance that they are not eagles or lions, the ones used by members of Ecuador’s most dangerous gangs, those who have defied the state with bombs and attacks on hospitals, and he lets them go. The taxi driver, before accelerating, said through the window:

—Go to Avenue Pablo Neruda, above the iron factory. The lizards are there.

-What are they doing?

—They ask the drivers for money. If they don’t give, they kill them. They asked for one for $1,000!

In Guayaquil – the most populous city in the country, open to the sea, which makes it a strategic location for drug trafficking – confusion reigns. President Daniel Noboa declared a few days ago that the nation was at war since the two main criminal gangs, Los Choneros and Los Lobos, took control of the prisons and took to the streets to sow chaos.

Soldiers search passers-by in the streets of Guayaquil. Santiago Arcos

It was a demonstration of the strength they have amassed over the past five years, during which they have taken control of ports, entire neighborhoods, businesses and fleets of taxi drivers. Along the way, they have infiltrated the main institutions: they have in their service judges, police officers, generals, prosecutors and members of Congress. They order the assassination of presidential candidates and advisors who have no connection with them. In their areas, the morgue van only enters to collect the bodies after receiving permission. Sometimes the family itself lifts the dead and buries him in a pine box, without any death certificate being recorded. A ghostly light covers these areas forbidden to the rest of mortals.

Gustavo López, 22 years old, black t-shirt, cap pulled down, lives in Durán, the most dangerous municipality in Ecuador. Its mayor lives in hiding, in exile, aware that a death sentence hangs over him. A few months ago, one of his advisors was kidnapped and a few days later he was found dead and tortured. No ransom was demanded. The Chone Killers and the Latin Kings are fighting with bullets in every corner of this place. Gustavo barely goes out on the street, only to go to the store to buy beers and come back. He is surprised when he sees boys who, as children, played football together, commit suicide in a small dirt field. He never wears a helmet when riding a motorcycle in case someone makes a mistake. He has a tattoo that means “loyalty” in Japanese.

Nowadays, when authorities check for skin carvings, anyone with one becomes suspect. He says if the police arrest him, he will give them his cell phone so they can check it. His brother, who got a tattoo of a lion and an eagle six years ago, even though it meant nothing, doesn’t set foot in the door. Gustavo, for his part, has reopened his phone repair stand: “With the blessing and faith of God, we go to work. »

For 72 hours, Guayaquil seemed like a ghost town. Shops closed and people took refuge in their homes. At night, with the curfew from eleven in the evening to five in the morning, the avenues seem deserted. Only essential workers – doctors, garbage collectors – and airport taxi drivers can leave. The police responsible for ensuring tourism have taken over the hotels, which have a metal detector at the door. Ten police officers guard the entrance to the Hilton and three others watch from the roof. An army is stationed in front of the house where the president, son of the country’s richest businessman, Álvaro Noboa, lives.

Guayaquil Bay, the commercial hub of the port city, reported about half of its stores closed following the wave of violence that swept through the city on January 9. Although a state of internal armed conflict has been declared, there are no police or military personnel in sight throughout the shopping complex.Santiago Arcos

—Is this the president’s building?

— This one and the one next to it are yours. Well, actually, all of Ecuador is yours.

» jokes a member of the Navy, hiding his face behind a hood. On his forehead he has a GoPro camera. The president asked the military to take charge of security, given the lack of efficiency of the police. Uniformed officers patrol with long weapons aboard convoys. They scare criminals, but also citizens, who know they are trigger-happy. In the last 24 hours, in central and southern Guayaquil, three suspected members of Los Lobos were arrested, who apparently admitted their membership in the gang. The night was busier in Quito, where a motorist attacked a police station with explosives.

A group of soldiers carries out a vehicle control operation in front of the municipal market of Caraguay, south of Guayaquil. Following the declaration of a state of internal armed conflict, the president ordered the armed forces to patrol the streets and safeguard public order.Santiago Arcos

The authorities have offered to recover the prisons, where riots occur from time to time causing dozens of deaths. Inmates are stabbing each other to control the neighborhoods. The decapitated heads of the losers end up in the toilet. From there, as contradictory as it may seem, gangs rule the country’s organized crime. The assassination of Fernando Villavicencio, an investigative journalist who shed light on the relationship between politicians and criminals, was planned in a cell during the electoral campaign. The two bosses of Los Choneros and Los Lobos, José Adolfo Macías Villamar, alias Fito, and Fabricio Colón Pico, who escaped from prison a few days ago. It is assumed that they left through the prison gate, with a red carpet. Noboa said they would attempt to regain control, through blood and fire if necessary. The last two presidents promised the same thing, without success.

At the seafood market, where live crabs are sold in bundles, no one says anything. Hearing the soldiers’ boots, there was silence. The fishermen and sellers remain silent behind their aquamarine-tiled stalls. It’s no secret that gang members arrive every Saturday, at four in the afternoon, to collect get vaccinated, extortion. To rebel is to put a rope around your neck. In April last year, a commando of 30 hitmen murdered nine fishermen in a hail of bullets who fell dead next to their nets and boats. Murderous fury has gripped Ecuador. People watch with disbelief, experience and direct, before the eyes of the world, the decomposition of an entire country.

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