‘Every day someone dies’: life and death in Ecuador’s most murderous city | Ecuador

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Luis Chonillo was on his way to be sworn in as the mayor of Ecuador’s most murderous city when the gunmen came to murder him.

“I’ve got two minutes left to live,” the 39-year-old politician remembers thinking as he cowered in a bathroom after sprinting into a nearby home when his convoy came under attack.

Two police bodyguards and a bystander were killed in the shootout on 15 May last year. Chonillo fled the country with his family, who remain abroad. The assassins have yet to be caught. And eight months later, as Ecuador reels from one of the worst outbreaks of violence in its recent history, Chonillo has yet to occupy his office in Durán’s sky-blue city hall.

Masked police officers carrying weapons guard a group of handcuffed young men, many of them without shoes, sitting on a set of blue steps.
Police officers guard detainees after an armed raid on the TC Televisión station in Guayaquil. Photograph: Carlos Duran Araujo/EPA

“I call myself a nomad mayor,” he said from a safe house “deep in the mountains” of Ecuador. “I might be in one city today, tomorrow I’m somewhere else. I never spend more than two nights in the same place … I have a police escort and I mostly work online … From my first day [in the job] I haven’t been able to sit in the mayor’s chair a single time. Not once. I’ve been to city hall twice.”

Last week’s convulsion – coupled with the 2023 assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio – brought Ecuador’s helter-skelter slide into drug-related carnage to a global audience. But the relentless blood-letting afflicting cities such as Durán is no secret to the 300,000 or so people who inhabit this municipality on the country’s western Pacific coast.

“I lost four friends last year,” said one resident, a nurse who asked not to be named.

In hushed tones, the woman described how one of her oldest friends had been killed in a drive-by shooting a few hundred metres from her house. A body was dumped outside a nearby school; a young boy shot inside his home. “It’s horrific. You see armed people everywhere, robbing people. Every day someone dies. There are bullets every day. You hear explosions and gunfire … So many people have died,” she said.


The exact causes of last week’s mayhem, which began after a notorious gang leader vanished from prison, remain unclear. But at the root of Durán – and Ecuador’s – tragedy is the global drugs trade and the trafficking of vast quantities of South American cocaine to Europe. Located across the river from Guayaquil, Ecuador’s most important port city, Durán is a strategic staging point for drug shipments over which the country’s increasingly powerful and ruthless gangs have been fighting for control, with support from foreign criminal organisations, including two Mexican cartels. From Guayaquil, experts say cocaine from the world’s top two producers, Colombia and Peru, is smuggled to ports in Europe and the US in crates of bananas, pineapples and shrimp.

Last year at least 407 people were murdered in Durán as gangs including the Latin Kings and Los Águilas (the Eagles) did battle, making the little known Ecuadorian city one of the most violent on Earth, on a par with Mexican murder hotspots such as Colima and Tijuana.

“The violence we are experiencing is not normal,” admitted Durán’s mayor, blaming the bloodshed on a toxic mix of his city’s strategic location and the deprivation that had made it a “breeding ground” for gangs that preyed on jobless young teenagers and men.

The devastating economic impact of Covid – which caused Guayaquil’s mortuaries to collapse and resulted in bodies being dumped in its streets – has also been blamed for pushing poverty-stricken young people into a life of crime. Another factor was the 2016 peace deal between the government of neighbouring Colombia and the Farc rebels who controlled trafficking routes in north Ecuador and whose disbanding put those routes up for grabs.

Two young men in black T-shirts exercise next to a pink wall with their hands behind their heads under the direction of two armed soldiers wearing helmets and combat fatigues.
Soldiers force two young men to do exercise as punishment for not having proper licences for their motorcycles in Durán. Photograph: Rodrigo Abd/AP

The gangs – which Ecuador’s president, Daniel Noboa, last week designated as “terrorist groups” to be “neutralised” by the armed forces – have turned low-income communities in Durán and Guayaquil into no-go zones for outsiders.

On Saturday, a squad of heavily armed police gave the Guardian a tour of Socio Vivienda, a rundown housing project in Nueva Prosperina, Guayaquil’s most violent district, that is the city’s answer to the City of God favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Controlled by a mobster known as “Comandante Willy”, a former prison guard who leads a gang called Los Tiguerones, the community’s walls are graffitied with the group’s motto – “God, Peace, Freedom” – and other messages declaring gang members “active, 24/7”. Three small community police stations have been fortified with sandbags and steel barricades after a succession of attacks last year in which one female police officer was killed.

When Ecuador exploded in violence early last week, gang gunslingers stormed one of those police outposts, ransacking its dormitories, smashing its security camera, and spraying its exterior with bullets. Another group, said to be from the same community, stormed the TC Televisión station in Guayaquil and took its journalists hostage before being arrested by police.

A hooded man points a gun at the TV presenter José Luis Calderón’s head live on air inside the TC Televisión station in Guayaquil on 9 January 2024.
A hooded man points a gun at the TV presenter José Luis Calderón’s head live on air inside the TC Televisión station in Guayaquil on 9 January 2024. Photograph: Courtesy TC/Reuters

“For the police, this is a war zone. Here police are the enemy,” SLt Jorge Alexander Masache Novillo said as he showed reporters around the precinct’s wreckage and gang lookouts cruised past outside on motorbikes. A sign above its vandalised reception urged locals to report crime but the only visitor was a mangy dog traipsing through the unguarded building.

Masache, 29, claimed his troops had regained control of the project since last week’s upheaval and showed off a cluster of four-storey flats where police had daubed their own message on the wall: “National police. United for Peace.”

He said he hoped to make drug users in Europe and the US – whose cocaine consumption has helped plunge this community, and others like it, into chaos – aware of the butchery their habit was fuelling. “We’ve seen bodies hung from bridges, decapitated, chopped up. They have an infinity of ways of killing people to make rival gangs afraid. Brutal, merciless levels of violence … They’ve copied the Mexican model,” Masache said in reference to the tactics of cartel killers.

Across the Guayas River separating Guayaquil from Durán, the nurse voiced hope President Noboa would turn the tide with a hardline crackdown he has compared to a war. So far the government says 1,534 people have been arrested and five “terrorists” killed during more than 15,000 operations around Ecuador.

Luis Chonillo, the mayor of Durán
Luis Chonillo, the mayor of Durán

The mayor of Durán also struck a defiant tone, insisting his country would overcome its drug disaster just as it overcame one of Latin America’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. “I’m certain, I have faith and I have the conviction that sooner rather than later we will be free of this nightmare and… society will remember all this as part of a dark past,” Chonillo said.

For now though, the itinerant mayor believed he had no choice but to continue governing remotely, holding online meetings with officials and making surreptitious trips into the city he was elected to run.

“I’m constantly visiting – I just don’t tell anyone. I might be sleeping in another city one day and then the next day I’ll do an inspection tour to visit a public work – but then I’ll leave immediately. I can’t stick around for long and I can’t tell people I’m coming.”

The nurse said she had considered abandoning her gang-controlled housing estate in Durán but lacked the resources to do so. Last year a record number of Ecuadorians fled north towards the US through the perilous jungles of the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama.

“If the government doesn’t take the right action, there’s no future here, not for me, not for my kids,” she said, voicing support for Noboa’s assault on Ecuador’s gangs. “Durán is utterly alone.”

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