GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador — Belen Diaz was walking home from college one evening when a motorcycle carrying two men made a menacing U-turn.
Terrified that she was about to be robbed for the eighth time in three years, the teaching student banged on a cab window until the driver drove her home. Diaz got away safe, but there was an unrelated fatal shooting the next day outside her gated community of two-story homes on the edge of the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil.
Ecuador was one of the calmest countries in Latin America until about three years ago. Today, criminals prowl relatively wealthy and working-class neighborhoods alike: professional hitmen, kidnappers, extortionists and thousands of thieves and robbers. Mexican and Colombian cartels have settled into coastal cities like Guayaquil and grabbed chunks of the trade shipping hundreds of millions of dollars of cocaine from neighboring Colombia and Peru to countries overseas.
One of the candidates in a special Aug. 20 presidential election had a famously tough stance on organized crime and corruption. Fernando Villavicencio was fatally shot in broad daylight Wednesday despite a security detail that included police and bodyguards.
“No one is safe from the insecurity in the country,” Anthony Garcia, who packs shrimp, said after the Villavicencio assassination. “We are at the hands of drug trafficking, of evil in its entirety.”
The country’s National Police tallied 3,568 violent deaths in the first six months of this year, far more than the 2,042 reported during the same period in 2022. That year ended with 4,600 violent deaths, the country’s highest in history and double the total in 2021.
The causes are complex. All, though, revolve around cocaine.
Cartel-aided gangs are battling for control of the streets, prisons and drug routes to the Pacific. Dwindling state coffers, political infighting, corruption and soaring debts created funding gaps in social and law-enforcement programs. The COVID-19 pandemic turned hungry children and unemployed adults into easy recruits for criminal groups.
Criminals are increasingly demanding payments from businesses and terming the fee a “vacuna” — vaccine — as in immunity from crime.
“COVID came and went and left us vaccines, but a different type of vaccines,” said Holbach Muñeton, president of the National Federation of Provincial Chambers of Tourism of Ecuador.
Shopping and dining is a different experience these days. Convenience stores, auto part shops and pharmacies have floor-to-ceiling metal bars that prevent customers from entering from the sidewalk. Malls have metal detectors at the entrances. The bars and restaurants that survived the pandemic have fewer tables and close early.
Reports of robberies have soared. Data from the National Police show 31,485 cases were reported last year, about 11,000 more than in 2020.
Garcia, the 26-year-old shrimp packer, has been robbed twice this year. Thieves in Guayaquil stole his phone one time during his morning commute. Another time, he was robbed after he went out to have a couple of drinks.
Restaurant owner Carlos Barrezueta said there are spots in Guayaquil where sales have dropped to a tenth of what they once were.
Ecuadorian authorities attribute the unprecedented violence to a power vacuum triggered by the killing in December 2020 of Jorge Zambrano, alias “Rasquiña” or “JL,” the leader of Los Choneros. Founded in the 1990s, the group is the country’s largest and most feared gang. Members carry out contract killings, run extortion operations, move and sell drugs, and are the law inside prisons.
Los Choneros and the similar groups Los Lobos and Los Tiguerones have been fighting over territory and control, including within detention facilities, where at least 400 inmates have died since 2021. The gangs have links to cartels from Colombia and Mexico, including the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation groups.
“Since the year 2000, we had already seen the Mexican cartels here,” said Rob Peralta, a former member of a National Police intelligence unit. “But definitely, in recent years, these criminal groups have garnered more influence here through local gangs, which they empowered, and today they have more weapons than the police themselves.”
Outgunned, unprepared and underpaid, law-enforcement officers don’t dare enter parts of crime-ridden neighborhoods or the wings of some prisons, where dismembered bodies, as well as high-caliber weapons, grenades, belt feeders and drugs, have been found when the government deploys the military and additional police after vicious riots.
Guayaquil is the epicenter of violence. About a third of this year’s violent deaths took place in Ecuador’s second-largest city, home to the country’s main commercial port and a large prison complex.
Built on flat land at the end of the Andes, the city stretches along the brown Amazonian waters of the Guayas River, with only a few tall buildings, and homes and small businesses such as pharmacies dominating the landscape.
The province of Guayas, which includes Guayaquil, is the country’s most populous with about 4.5 million people. In the first half of the year, the province saw 976 business robberies, according to National Police data, just 12 short of last year’s total.
In Socio Vivienda, a sprawling public housing neighborhood, shop owners, pedestrians, police — everyone — talks in whispers. Their eyes bounce around as if someone is watching them 24/7.
The neighborhood’s police station is surrounded by bags of dirt placed as protection after a shootout earlier this year. Save for a handful of officers chatting by the door, the building looks abandoned.
Police officers across the country walk around with outdated bulletproof vests, and a shortage of ammunition was not addressed until recently. People in some neighborhoods have pitched in to buy gasoline for police cars.
Muñeton said the tourism industry in Guayaquil recently arranged for a private university to let police officers use its dorms because their barracks have leaking roofs and lack air conditioning.
Stray bullets are now everyone’s concern. One pierced the door of the home of 12-year-old Daniel Mosquera on July 19 and hit him in the back. His mother, Caterina Aguirre, said he lost a kidney and the ability to move from the waist down.
But unlike many mothers of gun violence victims in other countries, Aguirre, 29, said she is not demanding punishment for the perpetrators. She prefers “divine justice” and only wants better health care for her son. That’s common even among the nonreligious, as nobody wants to attract additional attention.
Indeed, fear and distrust have tinged the warmth and politeness characteristic of Ecuadorian society.
People constantly look behind their backs, and some, like Diaz, have come up with elaborate plans to avoid being victimized.
Diaz, who is studying to one day become a college professor, carries two cellphones. She never uses one of them, but has downloaded apps to make it look like her everyday phone. She plans to hand thieves that one next time she is robbed. She does not go out in the evenings or dare download dating apps.
“We don’t know who we’re friends with anymore,” Diaz, 32, said. “I’m going to stay single forever. I can’t go dating on these weird apps. I mean, imagine, they could kidnap me! Life is not what it used to be.”