Crime in Ecuador has become more brutal in recent years, with an increasing number of kidnappers amputating their victims’ fingers and sending images to their families to demand higher ransoms. Ecuador was once known as a haven of peace in a violent region, but now it bears more resemblance to violent crime producers like Peru and Colombia. Kidnappings have also more than tripled in 2023, with 189 reports in the first five months alone compared to just 60 during the same period last year. The reports might be much higher, however, as many believe that many kidnappings are underreported.
“For decades, Ecuador was a refuge of peace wedged in a dangerous region. But these days, it increasingly resembles nearby Peru and Colombia, two huge producers of cocaine with violent criminal histories.” – AFP
Hotbed of Violence
Port city Guayaquil, with three million residents, has become a hotbed of violence with an increase in car bombs, prison massacres, mutilated bodies hanging from bridges, and kidnappings. The city, a major exporter of cocaine leaves destined for the US and Europe, has registered more than 1,000 murders so far in 2023. However, much of the wave of crime has no association with major drug gangs like Los Lobos and Tiguerones, both connected to Mexican cartels.
“The chances of someone becoming the victim of a kidnapping, extortion attempt or murder have risen five-fold.” – Carla Alvarez, Security Analyst
Not Just Narcos
Most of the kidnapping and extortion cases are the work of common criminals, including low-profile thieves and bus robbers. Reports suggest that it’s less likely the work of large drug gangs to spend considerable amounts of time negotiating with relatives of the victim(s). There are thirteen major crime gangs within the country, and the government declared organized criminal activity as terrorism, giving the military more power to pursue them.
“Why would a powerful gang, allied to a drug cartel, risk talking to the relative of a kidnapped person when they can traffic two tons of drugs?” – Luis Cordova, Expert
Ransom Threats and Brutality
The victims of kidnapping are usually kept in bathrooms, with their hands tied and in constant distress while the kidnappers negotiate a ransom with their family members. Several extortion complaints have also been registered this year, with businesspeople being the typical target. In one particular case, a construction businessman had been threatened with kidnapping for a month because he refused to pay $20,000 to extortionists.
“Even when tortured, the majority of kidnapping victims survive,” – Oscar Salguero, Regional Chief of an Anti-Kidnapping Unit
2023 Presidential Elections
Those most affected by kidnapping and extortion in Ecuador are middle-class and upper-class citizens, and they are most likely to vote for those parties who promise a harsher stand against organized crime in general elections that are to take place in August. Critics have accused President Enrique Ponce of failing to provide adequate solutions. As of now, there is no indication that the severity of kidnappings will reduce.
“A ‘frightening’ campaign of attacks was putting pressure on a government mired in a public safety crisis.” – Luis Cordova, Expert