Ecuador has gone from being one of the most peaceful countries in the Americas, to having one of the highest homicides rates in the region. Why is this happening? Some of the reasons include a reconfiguration of the global illicit drug market and changes in local criminal dynamics. Here’s what you need to know.

Text: Josefina Salomon / Ilustration: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla


  • Ecuador has become one of the most violent countries in the Americas, above Mexico and Brazil.
  • The port city of Guayaquil, the richest in the country, is at the epicentre of the crisis.
  • The three top crime organizations — Los Choneros, Los Lobos and Los Lagartos – control most prisons in the country, from where they operate.
  • Ecuador’s strategic location, between top cocaine producing Colombia and Peru and lucrative markets in Europe, combined with a lack of strong institutions, make it an ideal location for crime groups.



1. Violence has risen to record levels since 2016, with homicides reaching 25.9 murders per 100,000 people in 2022. The figure puts Ecuador side by side some of the most violent countries in Latin America, surpassing Brazil and Mexico. Other grewsome acts of violence, including car bombs and public killings have also soared, the International Crisis Group reported.

2. Political leaders have been among the targets of violence with Fernando Villavicencio, a member of the National Assembly and presidential candidate shot dead on the campaign trail on 9 August, one of the most high profile victims. He is not the only one.

3. Other crimes have also been on the rise. Reports of robberies rose from 11,000 in 2020 to 31,485 in 2022; according to National Police Data reported by the Associated Press.


1. Guayaquil: The main portal city, and the richest, in the country, has also become the most violent, with nearly as many homicides in the first six months of 2023 than in the whole of 2022, according to police data reported by Reuters. Half of the 145 bomb attacks documented in Ecuador in the year to mid-August took place in Guayaquil, according to the International Crisis Group.

2. Prisons have been at the epicentre of the crisis, with murders jumping from 46 in 2020 to more than 300 in 2021, El Pais reported. Ecuador is home to 52 prisons holding 31,245 prisoners and operating at just over 113 percent of their capacity, according to data from the World Prison Brief, of the University of Birkbeck. The population rose sharply from just over 8,000 in 2000. The United Nations’ human rights body said prisons “lack essential services and basic resources”, which contributed to creating an environment where crime organizations flourish.


1. The power of three: Ecuador is home to more than a dozen crime organizations but fighting over territorial control among the three most powerful ones – Los Choneros, Los Lobos and Los Lagartos – is largely blamed for the rise in violence across the country, according to analysis from InSight Crime. These groups tend to be hired by larger organizations, like the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) to transport drugs, carry out contract killings and run extortion operations.

2. Los Choneros: Born in the 1990’s and with up to 20,000 members at its highest point, they used to be the most powerful crime organization in Ecuador. Authorities said the organization worked closely with a Colombian cartel that was trying to control the sea trafficking routes towards Mexico and the United States but, more recently, they have been linked with the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel. Authorities say that the organization can make as much as $120 million a year from illicit activities coordinated from prisons, BBC Mundo reported.

3. Los Lobos: Originally part of Los Choneros, they are reported to have around 8,000 members and have expanded their presence to the city of Guayaquil. Their main activities are drug trafficking, extortion, which they coordinate and manage from prison, as well as illegal gold mining. InSight Crime has reported that Los Lobos might have teamed up with Los Tiguerones and the Chone Killers to form another organization to fight the influence of Los Choneros.

4. Los Lagartos: This organization has been operating in prisons in Guayaquil for at least 10 years, deploying gunmen to kill leaders and members of larger crime organizations, according to InSight Crime. They are now believed to have presence in at least 35 prisons across the country.


1. Cocaine Inc: A rise in cocaine demand, particularly in Europe, has led to an increase in coca cultivation and cocaine production in Ecuador’s neighbouring countries. When you add Ecuador’s porous coastline and ease of transportation to the mix, what you get is a great business opportunity crime organization are willing to fight each other to control.

2. Weak Institutions: Security forces in Ecuador lack resources and training and are often outnumbered by criminals. In response to the most recent wave of violence, authorities promised to increase the number of police officers, but a recent investigation by Connectas found that the quality of the training was poor. Renato Rivera, an expert on organized crime based in Quito told BBC Mundo that Ecuador’s weak financial monitoring institutions and legislation also facilitate money laundering, which is essential for crime organizations to operate.

3. Corruption: Experts have also blamed the rise in violence on the links between police officers, authorities and members of crime organizations. The arrests of two prison wardens and seven other prison staff members in Guayaquil early August after authorities found banned drugs and weapons in their officers, is an illustration of that. There’s more. Ecuador’s weak institutions, ongoing political crisis and economic challenges, with high levels of poverty and marginalization, make it an ideal breeding ground for crime groups.