Businessman Franklin Torres received an eerie Whatsapp message on a recent Sunday evening.
“Good evening Franki, this is the Jalisco New Generation” (name of a Mexican drugs cartel) the message read, in barely intelligible Spanish. “If you block me, you’ll get into problems. I need $6,000– I’m watching you, your wife and kids.”
Torres, a banana producer, ignored it and blocked the sender’s number- then, a few days later, another message arrived, this time sent to the phone of Franklin’s wife: “Tell your husband to get his act together, we are writing from prison and there are people watching at your window.”
While he reported the threats to law enforcement agencies, Franklin has little faith things will get better, and it seems unlikely that the offending cell phone number can be traced to a known individual.
As president of Ecuador’s National Federation of banana growers, he is pressuring the government to allow them to carry weapons to protect themselves.
“In the country it’s hard, we don’t have 911, or police patrol,” he says. “It’s better for good people to have weapons, not just those who are bad.”
Ecuador is the world’s biggest banana exporter and the industry is a lucrative one – banana crates are a favourite mode of transporting cocaine among drugs cartels, from Ecuador’s ports and on to Europe and beyond.
Mexican and Colombian cartels have infiltrated local gangs in Ecuador as they vie for lucrative drugs routes. Once one of the most peaceful countries in South America, Ecuador cartels have taken advantage of a country broken by corrupt politics.
In the first six months of the year, there were 3,568 violent deaths in the country, according to the National Police. That was up more than 70% on last year, even if the numbers did include hundreds of deaths in several prison riots.
And as the country heads to the polls in the first round of presidential elections on Sunday, crime is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, especially after last week’s assassination of one of the candidates, Fernando Villavicencio.
Villavicencio’s murder “was a terrifying tragedy,” says political consultant Oswaldo Moreno. “It marks an inflection point in which the politics of death is now very much part of the culture here.”
There’s no more powerful example of that than Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city and home to the country’s largest port. It’s become the epicentre of the country’s crime problems as cartels take advantage of its location and logistics to move drugs out of the country.
Presidential candidate Daniel Noboa chose Durán, one of the worst-hit areas of Guayaquil just across the river from the city center, for his final campaign event on Thursday.
But he did so wearing a bullet-proof vest. Along the way, there was a nearby shoot-out which sent everyone into a panic – such is daily life in this crime-ridden city.
“We need to change the state of security in Ecuador,” he told the BBC ahead of the event, adding that his priority if he became president would be tackling unemployment. “The problem is that by not giving people opportunities, we’re feeding these organisations with young new members.”
But it’s a mammoth task for a poor country like Ecuador – and it’s a losing battle against the lucrative drug trade.
In Durán, a curfew has been introduced after a surge in crime. Police checkpoints are set up along routes popular with drug traffickers but police are poorly equipped compared with the drugs gangs.
In some parts of the city, it feels like a war zone. In one district, a police station has sandbags piled up in the windows, put in place after gangs attacked them. In another, nearly 20 patrol cars are sat rusting in the car park. Captain Victor Quespás Valencia explains they just don’t have the money to fix them.
“Gangs want to win territory. We’re dealing with very violent deaths – people being found hanging from bridges or cut into pieces,” he explains. “International criminal organisations are recruiting people here – but they have lots of money. There’s a total imbalance between organised crime and the police trying to stop it.”
Source: BBC News.