Ecuador’s largest city is now a ghost town

One of the Ecuador largest city has undergone a dramatic transformation into what seems like an abandoned city due to a shocking surge in criminal violence. The recently elected president has declared the nation to be “in a state of war” in response to a series of disturbing incidents, including arson attacks, car bombings, shootings, and prison riots, claiming up to 15 lives across the country.

Guayaquil, typically a bustling port city with around 3 million residents, now presents an eerie stillness in its streets. Various factors, such as arson attacks and security concerns, have led to the suspension of waste collection and the closure of schools, universities, and government offices. The usually congested roads are nearly deserted, with those who venture out speeding to minimize exposure. Many businesses remain closed, even beyond the nationwide curfew imposed in response to the recent violence.

José Luis Calderón, a local television journalist who was held hostage during a live broadcast, described Guayaquil as a “desert.” Following this audacious attack on TC Televisión network, President Daniel Noboa declared a state of “internal armed conflict,” asserting that the country is at war with terrorists. Security forces are struggling to regain control, particularly in the streets and prisons, where the government claims that 178 guards and workers are still held hostage by criminals with ties to Mexican drug cartels.

Despite the navy spokesperson’s reassurance that the situation in Guayaquil is under control, there are few visible signs of security forces, raising concerns about the accuracy of such claims. The epicenter of this week’s violence is La Regional, a high-security prison on the city’s outskirts, where the disappearance of José Adolfo Macías Villamar, leader of the Los Choneros gang linked to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, triggered a wave of bloodshed and chaos.

The escape of Macías led to the hostage-taking of prison guards, and gruesome videos of security officials being murdered circulated on social media. At the peak of the violence on Tuesday, at least eight people were killed and two injured in what the media described as Guayaquil’s “day of terror.” The country, once known for its peace, is now grappling with a surge in violence fueled by its role in the international cocaine smuggling trade.

Reports tell stories of heroic acts amid the chaos, but there are concerns that the president’s campaign to “neutralize” more than 20 “terrorist” gangs, including the Wolves, the Latin Kings, the Chone Killers, and AK47, may lead to further bloodshed. Human rights and security experts fear a heavy-handed crackdown and speculate that the recent attacks may be a calculated effort by gang leaders to intimidate the young president, who has expressed intentions of a hardline approach inspired by El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele.

Chris Dalby, the director of World of Crime, an investigative journalism group focused on organized crime, anticipates a significant crackdown as the short-term response to the escalating violence. Despite concerns about the potential rise in casualties, Dalby believes that President Noboa, Ecuador’s youngest-ever president at 36, may feel compelled to increase the body count for political reasons, aligning with a hardline stance akin to El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele.

Dalby suggests that the recent attacks represent a united effort by gang leaders to demonstrate their power and push back against President Noboa’s anticipated tough measures. The situation has raised fears among human rights experts and security analysts that the president’s campaign to “neutralize” the gangs might exacerbate the violence rather than curb it.

In the midst of the crisis, the local newspaper Extra paints a grim picture of the unfolding events in Ecuador. Stories of heroism, security forces reclaiming control, and vigilante groups confronting gangs circulate alongside accounts of shopkeepers abandoning businesses to avoid looting. The editorial in Extra urges Ecuador’s nearly 18 million citizens to unite behind President Noboa in what it describes as an unprecedented war. The newspaper asserts that the country has reached a breaking point, and collective action is the only way to save it.

As the nation grapples with the fallout from the recent surge in violence, the international community watches closely, concerned about the potential human rights implications and the broader impact on Ecuador’s stability. The next steps taken by President Noboa will be pivotal in determining whether the country can regain control and restore a semblance of peace in the face of these unprecedented challenges.

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