Gangs gunmen and cartels are running amok As terror grips

Gangs, gunmen and cartels are running amok. As terror grips the streets of Ecuador, even the armed forces live in fear – CNN

Guayaquil, Ecuador CNN —

Camille Gamarra and Diego Gallardo sat in their living room and watched as gunmen stormed a local television news studio and took anchors and staff hostage during the live broadcast.

People who witnessed the incident were stunned, and news quickly spread on social media and WhatsApp messages of simultaneous attacks carried out in Ecuador's largest and arguably most violent city, Guayaquil.

Suddenly the residents, including Camille and Diego, were looking for a safe place for themselves and their loved ones.

The couple's 10-year-old son was at school across town, and Camille ran to her car keys to pick him up. But Diego stopped her.

“He told me, ‘If something were to happen to you, our children and I wouldn’t know how to deal with it. They need you. Stay here. “I’m leaving,” Camille says with a lost look as tears stream down her face.

She texted Diego as he headed off to school, while also receiving warnings of more violence across the city: gangs attacking hospitals, universities and malls.

Diego's last message to Camille said he was only two minutes from school. But a few minutes later, her frightened son called Camille and asked if anyone was coming to pick him up.

Camille repeatedly tried calling Diego's cell phone to find out where he was, and finally a police colonel answered. Diego had been shot in a seemingly random barrage of gunfire. By this time the police barricades had been erected and Guayaquil was placed on lockdown.

“I couldn’t save either of them,” says Camille, bursting into tears. “I was powerless. There was nothing I could do.”

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Days earlier, one of the country's most notorious gang leaders – José Adolfo Macías, or “Fito” – escaped from his prison cell in Guayaquil, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency. That declaration sparked criminal groups in the city on January 9, marking a turning point in Ecuador's fight against the gangs.

Ecuadorian police/Handout via Portal

Members of the police and military escort Jose Adolfo Macias in prison in Guayaquil, Ecuador, August 12, 2023, in a screenshot from an Ecuadorian police video.

Just hours after the terrorist outbreak in Guayaquil, President Daniel Noboa took an unprecedented step. Noboa, who had been inaugurated just two months earlier, declared an “internal armed conflict” in the country and ordered Ecuadorian forces to “neutralize” members of more than 20 gangs, which he described as terrorist groups.

Since then, Ecuador's national police and armed forces have been carrying out raids on the homes of people suspected of having ties to terrorist groups. They remain inconspicuous, wearing civilian clothes and not revealing the locations of the targets until they have carried out the operation. They warn that leaks could cost lives.

Fear has permeated the ranks; Even in Guayaquil's 90-degree heat and humidity, beneath layers of tactical gear, they insist on putting on a ski mask before being filmed. Some asked CNN to blur out their faces too.

“It’s been long days and nights,” one official said. “But we do this for our fellow citizens and our own families.”

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“Island of Peace” no more

Ecuador, once known as the region's “Island of Peace,” lies between two of the world's largest cocaine producers, Peru and Colombia, and its deep ports have made it a major transit point for cocaine reaching consumers in the United States and Europe. Due to the dollarization of the economy, the country is also a strategic location for money launderers.

Experts warn that Ecuador's terror groups are linked to a larger criminal network, including Mexico's notorious Sinaloa Cartel, complicating Noboa's attempts to “neutralize” criminal groups operating within its borders. But Admiral Jaime Vela Erazo, head of the Ecuadorian Armed Forces' Joint Command, has vowed not to give in or negotiate with armed groups, adding that “the future of our country is at stake.”

Sean Walker/CNN

The military is guarding the outside area of ​​Guayaquil's prison complex, the largest in the country and the place where Fito was held before his alleged escape.

While a nationwide curfew is in effect, police and military set up roving checkpoints on the streets of Guayaquil during the day. They stop and pat down drivers to inspect them for weapons, meticulously search every part of their car and even scroll through their cell phones. Troopers also stop commuter buses and ask passengers on board if they have any information that could help law enforcement.

According to the Ecuadorian presidency, more than 3,000 people have been arrested since January 9th. While these numbers may sound encouraging, fewer than two hundred of them have been arrested for what the government calls “terrorism,” according to government figures.

The fight is far from over. Noboa said the Ecuadorian government estimates that at least 30,000 people in the country have ties to gangs.

But senior military officials tell CNN they worry about what happens next. They say they do not have the tactical equipment, ammunition and intelligence necessary to sustain this fight long-term.

One soldier, who asked not to be identified, told CNN that he even lacked protective helmets and was using outdated firearms with a limit of about a dozen bullets per day.

While there is determination on the front lines, there is also hesitation. Among the police and military officers tasked with carrying out raids and preemptive strikes, some fear what will happen to them or their families if terrorists link them to the raids.

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“I know we are targets now,” says one soldier. “But that won't stop me from fighting.”

He and others had been away from home for more than a week and were working rotating shifts and patrols. He takes out his cell phone and proudly shows a letter from his ten-year-old daughter, written in English.

“'I want you to know that everyone misses you at home, and we want you to return safe and sound… And I ask you to help the country be a better place,'” it read.

“I feel good knowing I’m doing this for them,” he says.

President Noboa has asked the United States and European nations for help. Speaking to CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Noboa said the country “would happily accept U.S. cooperation.” We need equipment, we need weapons, we need intelligence and I think this is a global problem. This is not just a problem in Ecuador that goes beyond the borders.”

Like other leaders in the region, Noboa has pointed out that the cartels running amok in his country finance their activities by selling drugs in foreign markets.

“We have to fight against this together, because the consumption of these products is a regional and global problem. It is in the United States, it is in Europe, and we have to work together to move forward,” he told Colombian radio station RCN last week.

The crisis could prompt more Ecuadorians to emigrate. Locals are tired of living in fear and being extorted for protection money, said Carlos Jimenez, an urban planner who studied in the United States and now lives in his native Ecuador. “These people are in the middle of shootings in their neighborhood, what would you do? You won’t want to stay there.”


Gunmen stormed a local television news studio and took anchors and staff hostage during the live broadcast.

“I mean, if (the U.S.) doesn't help us, you're probably going to see more people trying to cross the border,” Jimenez warns.

Jimenez wants to stay for now, but doesn't know how long. “I have a shop down here; I have family here,” he says. “I can't imagine moving somewhere else in my 40s. I don’t want to leave my country, I love my country, man!”

Camille, who is still grappling with her husband's death as she plans his funeral, says Diego was also proud to be from Ecuador. As a musician, his stage name was Aire del Golfo, or The Gulf Breeze, a tribute to his beloved coastal hometown.

She stands over the neighborhood monument dedicated to Diego and reads the lyrics to one of Diego's songs from a framed printout: “I hear voices that lead me where I go and I don't want to stop because today.” I will find the place where I come from. And I’ll stay there.”

Sean Walker/CNN

Soldiers participate in exercises before departing for operations in Guayaquil.

Signs of normality are slowly returning to Guayaquil. Days after Noboa's decree of “internal armed conflict,” CNN saw businesses reopen in the busy city center. Residents began going out to eat and shop. Some restaurants even dare to set up tables on sidewalks for outdoor dining.

But the terror is far from over.

On January 17, Cesar Suarez, the prosecutor in charge of investigating the TC Television studio takeover, was shot dead in his car on the way to court – a brazen blow to the government's anti-terrorism efforts and a reminder of the government's relentless influence Gangs in the countryside.