It was the middle of the night when homemade explosives went off on Sunday in a populated neighborhood of Guayaquil, one of Ecuador’s largest cities and the country’s commercial hub. The blast left five people dead and 17 injured – the latest casualties in a wave of gang-fueled bloodshed.
Ecuadorian Interior Minister Patricio Carrillo called the explosion a “declaration of war against the state” by criminal gangs whose squabbles to control drug trafficking have left a growing trail of collateral damage.
In Cristo del Consuelo – a neighborhood known for its street parties and underground dance clubs – residents were left shaken after the 3am eruption. Authorities said men arrived on motorbikes and threw a bag full of explosives into the street. The explosion set off a shock wave that was felt up to 230 feet away, Carrillo said. The street was covered with rubble, corpses and blood.
Among the victims was a woman who stood near her balcony before the explosion happened. A canteen owner and a taxi driver were also killed at the scene, El Universo reported. Eight homes and two cars were destroyed in the blast, the country’s National Emergency and Risk Management Service said on Twitter.
Longtime residents say there has been an escalation in organized crime activity, drug trafficking, homicides and robberies over the past decade.
“We would give anything not to live here anymore. We are living a nightmare,” one of the victims’ family members told local outlet GK.
The motive for the attack remains unclear. However, at a press conference on Sunday, Carrillo said preliminary information indicated it was a targeted assault on a man known as “Cucaracha” – or cockroach – who is believed to have links to Los Tiguerones, one of Ecuador’s most feared gangs. Authorities are also investigating whether the blast is linked to three other violent events over the same weekend or a drug bust earlier this month, he added.
Still, the investigation was challenged by an apparent lack of cooperation from witnesses, Carrillo said. None of the injured residents would speak to authorities, he said. Although there is a $10,000 reward for helpful information, the tips have yet to be given.
In an attempt to contain the growing violence, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso has declared a state of emergency in Guayaquil, which will allow the immediate mobilization of several law enforcement agencies, including those dealing with investigations. crime, the fight against organized crime, weapons and explosives, and transnational crimes. The order also empowers agencies to disrupt meetings in public spaces and to conduct inspections and searches of citizens’ homes.
On Monday, Ecuadorian police carried out 11 house searches in Guayaquil, where they arrested five people and seized explosives and weapons. Law enforcement also arrested two people after discovering they had homemade explosives similar to those used in the Cristo del Consuelo attack, the country’s interior ministry said on Twitter. As of Tuesday morning, no one had been formally charged with setting off the explosives on Sunday.
Of 145 bombings in Ecuador this year, 72 took place in Guayaquil, which has become the epicenter of rising violence, according to government figures.
This is probably because of the city’s strategic location. Home to the country’s main port, Guayaquil is a major transport point for drugs from neighboring Colombia and Peru, the world’s top cocaine producers. The rivalry to control what the non-profit investigative outlet InSight Crime considered “a cocaine highway to the United States and Europe” has unleashed devastating effects on Ecuador as gangs use brutal tactics to crush the competition.
The violence has mostly taken place in the country’s overcrowded and underfunded prisons, where gang clashes have claimed hundreds of lives in recent years. However, more and more blood is flowing in the streets. On February 14, two corpses were seen hanging from a bridge. A day later, a decapitated head was found in a bag. Gangs now deploy makeshift explosives and car bombs.
Although the recent incidents seem particularly gruesome, officials say the violence has been simmering for more than a decade.
“It is not a problem that arose yesterday, or six months ago, or a year ago,” Ecuadorian government minister Francisco Jiménez Sánchez said on Sunday. “These are conditions that have dragged on for 15 years in particular.”