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Drug-fueled organized crime in Ecuador, reaches new levels

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In Ecuador, thousands of gang members have been arrested since the government declared a war against criminal groups over three weeks ago. All this follows a violent uptick in gang-related activity that culminated in gunmen taking staff hostage during a live TV show. Reporter Jorge Valencia explains drug-fueled organized crime has reached unprecedented levels in Ecuador.

JORGE VALENCIA, BYLINE: Ecuador is officially in armed combat with gangs. In a video released by the military, soldiers with rifles barge into a prison...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

VALENCIA: ...And order inmates to line up in their underwear and sing the national anthem.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

VALENCIA: Ecuador was once a haven safe from the violence of its neighboring countries. That started to change some 20 years ago. Authorities in neighboring Colombia, with help from American taxpayers, made it a lot harder for drug traffickers to send cocaine straight to the United States, says Hugo Acero, former security secretary in the Colombian capital of Bogota.

HUGO ACERO: (Non-English language spoken).

VALENCIA: Which forced drug traffickers to look elsewhere.

ACERO: (Non-English language spoken).

VALENCIA: So Colombian and Peruvian drug mafias sent a lot of their drugs where? Ecuador, Acero says. Often, they're hidden inside banana shipping containers sent through the Panama Canal to Europe. Mario Pazmino is former intelligence director with the Ecuadorian Army. He says that in the last decade, there was another major change.

MARIO PAZMINO: (Non-English language spoken).

VALENCIA: "That's when Ecuador became a country where cocaine is processed from leaf to final product," Pazmino says. As cocaine processing and distribution grew, so did the presence of transnational criminal groups.

PAZMINO: (Non-English language spoken).

VALENCIA: Pazmino says the Mexican Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generacion cartels have presence in Ecuador, as do Italian and Albanian mafias. These groups pay Ecuadorian gangs. The biggest is Los Choneros.

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ADOLFO MACIAS: (Non-English language spoken).

VALENCIA: And it's headed by the man making this video from inside prison. In fact, Adolfo Macias made a lot of videos from prison. In this one, a uniformed officer stands by, and you can hear four other men putting down their pistols on a table.

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MACIAS: (Non-English language spoken).

VALENCIA: Macias was offering a truce with other gangs in Ecuador. Then earlier this month, he escaped from prison, and a wave of violence swept the country.

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PRESIDENT DANIEL NOBOA: (Non-English language spoken).

VALENCIA: Speaking on a local radio show, President Daniel Noboa said authorities had been planning on moving Macias to a more secure prison and that the ensuing violence was no accident. Noboa has officially labeled 22 gangs as terrorist organizations, deployed the military and declared an internal armed conflict.

IOAN GRILLO: Overall, the military approach hasn't worked, but neither has much else.

VALENCIA: Ioan Grillo is the author of a trilogy of books on organized crime called "El Narco." He says that as authorities in Mexico and El Salvador have aggressively gone after criminals, they've systematically violated the human rights of the broader population. In Ecuador, President Noboa has overwhelming support, at least for now.

GRILLO: There is certainly danger going forward of, you know, massacres by the military or other things, but then again, he's got very few options.

VALENCIA: Human rights observers in Ecuador say they worry a military approach will exacerbate the violence. Civil servants are already paying a price. The other day, one of the prosecutors investigating these newly labeled terrorist groups was gunned down in his car. For NPR News, I'm Jorge Valencia in Bogota.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jorge Valencia
Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.