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Ignacio Minuesa, Pike Wipperfurth, Kiara Alexander, Victoria Valová, William Bos, Mateo Maya, Magdalena Breyer, SOUTHCOM, and Extremism Teams

Jennifer Loy, Chief Editor

September 7, 2023

Map of Ecuador[1]


Ecuador is experiencing a rise in violence and instability due to the growing influence and presence of regional organized crime networks.[2] Gang-related violence has increased progressively since 2021,[3] reaching a historical peak in August 2023 with the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio.[4] Based on the quantity, validity, and data verification, CTG assesses with HIGH CONFIDENCE that violence will almost certainly continue to increase in Ecuador. Members of domestic and international criminal groups will very likely continue carrying out political killings, targeted assassinations, shootings, and bombing attacks. These organized criminal groups are very likely using prisons as staging grounds for their planning, facilitation, and recruitment operations. Group mobilization will likely increase as Ecuador approaches the presidential run-off elections on October 15, 2023. These groups are utilizing targeted attacks to gain control over critical political positions and geographic areas to support drug trafficking schemes and corruption in Ecuador.

Historical Overview

In 2023, there were a series of high-level political assassinations in Ecuador. On January 21, the candidate for the mayor of Salinas, Julio Cesar Farachio was killed while attending a political event.[5] On February 4, the mayoral candidate for the port city of Puerto Lopez Omar Menendez was assassinated hours before the polls opened.[6] On July 23, Agustin Intriago, the mayor of the port city of Manta, was murdered while inspecting public works projects.[7] Ecuador's presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, was fatally shot by Colombian nationals at a campaign rally on August 9, 2023.[8] On September 8, Bolívar Vera, councilor of the Durán canton and member of the Social Christian Party (PSC), was found dead.[9] These political killings are part of a broader trend of increasing violence that has resulted in 3,500 violent deaths in the first half of 2023 alone.[10] Ecuador’s coastal ports and cities located along major drug trafficking routes have experienced the brunt of this escalation.[11]

President Guillermo Lasso has blamed the increasing violence on the growing presence of international criminal organizations and drug cartels in Ecuador. Located between the two largest coca producers, there is a growing competition to gain control over the drug trafficking routes running through Ecuador[12] and capitalize on the boom in cocaine demand.[13] Historically, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had a monopoly over narcotrafficking in Ecuador. With the disarmament of FARC under the 2016 peace agreement, a power vacuum was created, driving competition between several groups for control over critical drug routes across the Colombian-Ecuadorian border.[14]

Authorities in Ecuador have also speculated that the growing violence derives from the assassination of Los Choneros leader Jorge Luis Zambrano alias “Rasquiña” in 2020.[15] The Ecuadorian drug cartel had largely filled the 2016 power vacuum, taking over a considerable proportion of the drug trade after FARC’s demobilization. Following Rasquiña’s murder, a wave of violence arose within Ecuador’s gang-ruled prisons as the three main factions of Los Choneros, “Lobos, Tiguerones, and Chone Killers,” split from the main organization.[16] On August 31, inmates took over 50 law enforcement personnel hostage across multiple prisons, and two bombs exploded outside of police buildings in Quito.[17] The hostage incident was likely retaliation against prisoner relocation and weapons searches in a government attempt to regain control of national prisons.[18] In response, President Guillermo Lasso posted on X, “The measures we have taken, especially in the prison system, have generated violent reactions from criminal organizations that seek to intimidate the state.”[19]

The fracturing of the main criminal organization is producing a power vacuum that domestic and international groups, such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, seek to fill, creating the violence seen today. Key developments and incidents over the past months demonstrate growing national instability as threats towards public officials seeking national reforms on drug trafficking threaten democratic order.


Local gangs will almost certainly continue intensifying the conflict for control inside the prison system, very likely using it as a platform for member recruitment and the coordination of attacks on the outside. Local gangs are almost certainly capitalizing on the absence of government and authority control of these facilities. The government will likely attempt to recover total control over prisons by moving gang leaders to maximum security enclosures. To ensure that the government does not regain control, members of these groups both inside and outside of prisons will very likely continue threatening prison facilities and workers. Violence will very likely continue spreading outside of the prisons as local gangs and their sponsor international criminal organizations attempt to gain control over key spheres of influence.

Organized crime networks will likely attempt to capture key political positions in strategic geographic regions of Ecuador to support corruption and drug trafficking schemes, very likely perpetuating their role in the international drug trade. Targeted attacks and assassinations are very likely being used by these organizations to instill fear in and intimidate public officials and the public, hindering reforms aimed at tackling the regional and national drug trade. These groups are very likely using the political opportunity structure created by these operations to further weaken the upcoming government. Villavicencio’s assassination is very likely evidence of the growing capabilities of local gangs working with the support of international cartels, as his death is the highest-level killing by organized crime in Ecuador’s history. The collaboration of national and regional organized crime groups will very likely have a strong influence over the country and pose a direct threat to the political system.

Organized crime groups are very likely to attempt further attacks on politicians during the second round of election campaigns from September 24 to October 12 and in the lead-up to election day on October 15, 2023. Politicians holding public campaign speeches are almost certainly at risk, very likely increasing their personal security measures. The upsurge of violence and overt operations carried out by organized crime networks will likely discourage voters from casting ballots due to fear of intimidation and violence, likely decreasing voter turnout. The candidate with a stronger commitment to thwarting criminal organizations and creating concrete workable solutions will likely have a better chance of winning the elections as citizens likely fear Ecuador’s progression into a narco-state.

Future Implications

Local gangs will very likely seek further support from international criminal organizations to maintain control of critical areas for their illicit activities. Confrontations between local gangs over strategic areas will very likely remain active, and their operations will very likely keep on using the penitentiary system to command the organizations, recruit new members, and coerce the government authorities.

Given Ecuador’s strategic importance for drug trafficking networks, it will very likely continue being a key area of contention for regional criminal networks. Due to the threat of political reform, these networks will likely attempt to grow their influence over Ecuador’s domestic politics, almost certainly impacting the upcoming national election run-off in October. The threat posed to political candidates almost certainly extends to those running in future legislative and mayoral races, including legislators, council members, and other members of the local, state, and national political systems. The threat that these organized crime groups pose to political candidates will very likely continue discouraging candidates from hosting campaign rallies, making public appearances, or speaking out against corruption leading up to elections. There is a roughly even chance that political candidates will drop out of election competitions for fear of death or harm to themselves or their families. Future elections and campaign processes are likely to be altered to negate the threat posed by crime groups, shifting from smaller, less secure venues to a centralized venue with enhanced security measures.

The Ecuadorian government's Personal Protection Officers (PPO) are likely to go through an extensive reorganization to guarantee its officials' safety and security. Ecuador will likely seek to be part of multilateral security cooperation efforts to enhance its security apparatus. The Police and Armed Forces will likely go through rigorous training to enhance their readiness and competency against organized crime and terrorism. It is very likely that Ecuador will seek involvement in international security operations to deny criminal organizations the ability to operate within the territory, very likely focusing on areas close to their Peruvian and Colombian borders. The Ecuadorian government will very likely revise its approach towards criminality. The policy is likely to be made in order to evolve the Ecuadorian government's approach towards criminal organizations and threats to national security.


[2] Fernando Villavicencio assassination: suspects are Colombian, police say, Reuters, August 2023,

[3] Candidate in Ecuador's presidential election Fernando Villavicencio shot dead, BBC, August 2023,

[4] Fernando Villavicencio assassination: suspects are Colombian, police say, Reuters, August 2023,

[5] Asesinan a Julio César Farachio, candidato a la alcaldía de Salinas, El Universo, January 2023,

[6] Ecuador polls: Murdered candidate elected as mayor, BBC, February 2023,

[7] Agustín Intriago: Ecuadorean mayor shot dead in port city, BBC, July 2023,

[8] Candidate in Ecuador's presidential election Fernando Villavicencio shot dead, BBC, August 2023,

[9] Hallan muerto a concejal de Durán Bolívar Vera, quien fue secuestrado este jueves, El Universo, September 2023

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Fernando Villavicencio assassination: suspects are Colombian, police say, Reuters, August 2023,

[13] Candidate in Ecuador's presidential election Fernando Villavicencio shot dead, BBC, August 2023,

[14] Ecuador: Gang-ruled prisons, assassinated politicians and a drug lord's killing, Sky News, September 2023,

[15] Ibid .

[16] Los Choneros: X-ray of the mega gang that controlled drug trafficking in Ecuador for the last 20 years, Infobae, July 2023,

[17] Ibid

[18] Car bomb explosions and hostage-taking inside prisons underscore Ecuador’s fragile security, The Globe and Mail, September 2023,

[19] Inmates free 57 Ecuador prison guards after stand-off, BBC, September 2023,


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