In 2022, Ecuador was plagued by outbreaks of violence connected to organized criminal groups, including bomb attacks, prison riots and the assassination of three prosecutors. The ‘narco’ violence became so acute that the government declared a state of emergency in November 2022. While this small Latin American country is thousands of kilometres away from south-eastern Europe, its instability stems partly from the activities of criminal groups from the Western Balkans that have become big players in cocaine smuggling from Ecuador to Western Europe. Rather than disrupting their activities, the recent violence in Ecuador may be helping these groups to consolidate their position in the lucrative local drug economy.

Big players in a major cocaine hub

Positioned between two key major cocaine-producing countries, Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has become a major hub for the shipment of cocaine to Europe.1 The port of Guayaquil, the largest in Ecuador, is both an important departure point for drugs and the epicentre of drug-related violence. From January to August 2022, 145 bomb attacks were recorded in Ecuador, half of which took place in Guayaquil.2 The city has been wracked by gang violence, gruesome murders, kidnappings and extortion. On several occasions – for example, in August 2021 – the government been forced to declared a state of emergency because of the violence.3

The port of Guayaquil in Ecuador is the epicentre of drug-related violence.

The port of Guayaquil in Ecuador is the epicentre of drug-related violence.

Photo: Michele Westmorland

Violence has also spilled over into prisons where criminal groups coordinate cocaine trafficking.4 In 2021, some 316 inmates were killed inside the country’s often overcrowded prisons. This trend continued in 2022, including with a bloody clash in October that was thought to be triggered by a power struggle over drug distribution.5

For some time, Ecuador has struggled with political instability and weak criminal justice; it is considered to be one of Latin America’s most unstable democracies.6 In 2021, the country ranked 31st in the world on the Global Organized Crime Index.7 One of its highest criminality scores (7.5 out of 10) was related to the influence of foreign actors. Some of the most powerful and violent foreign actors are criminal groups from Mexico which are shipping cocaine from Ecuador to the US.8 However, criminal groups from the Western Balkans are also present and active in Ecuador. While they have managed to keep a relatively low profile, their presence and activities have left a trail of blood. In the past five years, five Balkan nationals have been killed in Ecuador: three Albanians, one Serb and one Montenegrin. A citizen of Kosovo has also been injured. All these cases are believed to be linked to cocaine trafficking and the disputes that it has created among foreign actors and between them and local criminal gangs.9

It is thought that much of Ecuador’s narco violence is related to competition among local groups as to who will provide protection to the powerful foreign actors.10 Criminal groups from the Balkans work closely with local gangs to ensure smooth functioning of their operations. For example, local groups help with obtaining cocaine, transportation, logistics and security, as well as providing links to corrupt politicians and allies in the security sector and justice system. Since this is a lucrative business, there is competition among local entrepreneurs in the market for violence.

Thus far, the country’s criminal justice system has been unable to get a grip on the situation. Interviews with senior law enforcement officials in Ecuador reveal insufficient understanding of criminal groups from the Western Balkans and little cooperation with their counterparts in south-eastern Europe. There is also a track record of corruption. Those brave enough to stand up to the criminals are often targeted. Three Ecuadorian prosecutors were killed in 2022 – two of them in Manabi and one in Guayaquil.11

Crisis as an opportunity for Balkan groups

Paradoxically, the latest flare up in violence may be an opportunity for criminal groups from the Western Balkans operating in Ecuador. First, they are not the targets of the violence. Rather, local Ecuadorian gangs are fighting to protect the Western Balkans criminal groups and facilitate their operations, from which the Ecuadorian gangs profit. If the Balkan groups keep their heads down and ride out the storm, they may benefit from the fierce gang rivalry by getting lower prices for cocaine and finding violent entrepreneurs who are willing to provide them with protection.

Second, violence on the streets and in prisons keeps law enforcement agencies busy, thereby enabling foreign actors to exploit the situation. The identification of Balkan traffickers in Latin American countries has not been straightforward, owing in part to their multiple identities (including fake documents), deep pockets and good connections. The new wave of violence makes it even more difficult for law enforcement officials to target discreet foreign groups when they have their hands full with violent local ones.

Third, criminal groups from the Balkans benefit from the general chaos that has swept Ecuador as a result of the increase in violence. The borders are reportedly becoming more porous and port security less strict. The chaos has also enabled some criminals to slip through the net of the justice system. For example, notorious Albanian drug trafficker Dritan Rexhepi, who has been in prison in Ecuador since 2014, was granted house arrest at the end of 2021. According to the media, he has since disappeared from his house in Guayaquil, leaving him free to carry on his criminal activities.12

The recent violence in Ecuador shows the transnational nature of organized crime and the disjointed state of international law enforcement. Law enforcement officials in western and south-eastern Europe will not be able to disrupt major drug shipments unless they cooperate more with their counterparts in source countries such as Ecuador. Meanwhile, police in Ecuador will find it difficult to reduce the violence in their own country unless they understand that the narco violence is being driven in part by competition among local groups to protect foreign criminal actors. In short, this is good example of a ‘glocal’ problem, one in which local conditions are affected by global flows. As such, it requires a coordinated, multilateral solution.


  1. Walter Kemp, Transnational tentacles: Global hotspots of Western Balkan organized crime, GI-TOC, July 2020,

  2. International Crisis Group, Ecuador’s high tide of drug violence, 4 November 2022,

  3. Dan Collins, Ecuador city declares state of emergency amid dramatic rise in gang bombings, The Guardian, 15 August 2022,

  4. UN experts sound alarm as Ecuador sees more deadly prison clashes, Al Jazeera, 6 October 2022,

  5. Associated Press, Ecuador prison clash leaves at least 15 dead, 20 injured, VOA News, 4 October 2022,

  6. Walter Kemp, Transnational tentacles: Global hotspots of Western Balkan organized crime, GI-TOC, July 2020,

  7. See GI-TOC, Global Organized Crime Index – Criminality in Ecuador,

  8. Dan Collyns, Agony of Ecuador’s brutal prison massacre endures for bereaved relatives, The Guardian, 10 October 2021,

  9. Alessandro Ford, Albanian mafia leaves trail of blood in Ecuador, InSight Crime, 5 January 2021,; European mafias operate from Ecuador, even from prison they coordinate the exit of the drug, 24/7 News Agency, 6 February 2022,

  10. Interview with an investigative journalist in Bogota, September 2022. 

  11. Inci Sayki, Two charged for the killing of Ecuadorian prosecutor, OCCRP, 21 September 2022,

  12. Judge let the ‘cocaine czar’ escape in Ecuador, Ecuador Times, 11 November 2022,