Balkan criminal groups are taking advantage of instability in Ecuador.

Positioned between two of the largest cocaine-producing countries in the world, Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has become a corridor and gateway for the shipment of cocaine to the United States and Europe. The country’s main port, Guayaquil, is a departure point for large volumes of drugs. Unsurprisingly, the city is also the epicentre of drug-related violence, evident in a spate of bombings, inter-gang shootings, gruesome murders, kidnappings and extortion incidents over the past few years.

Riots triggered by overcrowding in prisons and power struggles between gangs over drug distribution have led to the deaths of hundreds of inmates in the past few years. In early January 2024, two of the country’s most powerful gang leaders escaped from maximum security prisons in the space of around 24 hours, while more than 100 prison staff were being held hostage by inmates across five different jails.1

Political instability and weak criminal justice have created a permissive environment for drug traffickers to operate in Ecuador. The country has also become a magnet for foreign criminals, notably from Mexico, Colombia, Europe and the Western Balkans. This has fuelled a market for weapons and the services of hitmen.

The Ecuadorian navy conducts an anti-drug trafficking operation near the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador, in March 2024.

The Ecuadorian navy conducts an anti-drug trafficking operation near the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador, in March 2024.

Photo: Gerardo Menoscal/AFP via Getty Images

As a result, homicides increased by a factor of eight between 2018 and 2023. Last year was the bloodiest in the country’s history, with a homicide rate of 46.5 per 100 000 inhabitants.2 Seldom are the perpetrators brought to justice. Among the victims were police officers, prosecutors, mayors and presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, who had campaigned on an anti-mafia platform and was assassinated at a rally in Quito in August 2023, less than two weeks before the elections.3

Ecuador’s criminal justice bodies have been too weak to withstand this onslaught. This is reflected in the 2023 Global Organized Crime Index, which shows a major gulf between Ecuador’s rising criminality score – the country is ranked 11th worst out of 193 countries – and a falling resilience score.

Recently elected president Daniel Noboa has tried to reverse this trend. In late 2023, the attorney general announced the launch of Operación Metástasis, the biggest crackdown on organized crime and corruption in the country’s history. More than 75 raids netted not only suspected offenders but also serving and former judges, police officers and other suspected enablers and informants. The explosion of violence in early January was a reaction to this chemotherapy.

A trail of blood

It is thought that much of Ecuador’s narco-violence is related to competition among local groups over who will provide protection and other services to the powerful foreign criminal groups, including those from the Western Balkans.4

Through violence and alliances, criminal groups from the Western Balkans have firmly entrenched themselves in the country’s criminal underworld. Local Ecuadorian gangs assist the Balkan groups with their cocaine-related activities and provide security. This helps the Balkan groups to operate with a relatively high degree of impunity while enriching and empowering the local gangs. The Balkan connection has also given Ecuadorian gangs greater access to the highly lucrative cocaine market in Europe.5

Corruption, intimidation and weak governance have also enabled individuals from the Western Balkans – particularly from Albania – to operate in the murky realm where crime and business intersect. For example, in February 2024, a Europol-coordinated operation identified an Albanian businessperson who was using Ecuadorian fruit companies as a front to import significant quantities of cocaine into the EU. A total of €48 million in company assets were frozen as a result.6

The cocaine business has not been without its risks for traffickers from the Balkans. Over the past five years, seven people from the Western Balkans linked with drug trafficking are known to have been killed in Ecuador, and at least one has been wounded.

Traffickers from the Western Balkans killed or wounded in Ecuador.

Figure 1 Traffickers from the Western Balkans killed or wounded in Ecuador.

Source: Data gathered from various news sources. Milan Milovać was shot in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in November 2020, but lost his life in a hospital in January 2021.

Potential effects of the crackdown

As a result of the gang-related violence in early 2024, the president of Ecuador has designated 22 criminal groups as ‘narco-terrorists’ and declared a state of internal armed conflict.7 Dozens of operations have been carried out by police and the military, targeting not only members of these groups but also their operational bases.8 Furthermore, since the beginning of the year, record volumes of cocaine have been seized at the country’s ports in containers bound for Europe.9

It is still too early to judge the efficiency and impact of the crackdown by the Ecuadorian government. However, it is safe to assume that the situation could unsettle the illicit economy from which groups from the Western Balkans have profited over the past few years.

If the government can restore order and significantly reduce the flow of cocaine into and out of the country, it is highly probable that the Western Balkan groups would partially relocate to somewhere less risky in the region. Possibilities include further growing their presence in Peru, Colombia and Brazil – either trying to infiltrate ports or making contacts with cocaine suppliers in the hinterland. It is also possible that operations could be displaced to more distant transhipment points, such as in the Caribbean or along the Atlantic coast of South America.

Key members of Albanian organized crime groups operating in Ecuador have temporarily relocated to other South American countries, such as Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Brazil, from where they can assess the situation from a safe distance while also taking the opportunity to expand their networks in these countries. This move serves as a contingency plan should the security situation in Ecuador remain stringent. Nonetheless, the majority of their members remain in strategic locations inside the country, such as in Guayaquil, actively navigating the current situation.10

Another scenario is that the government quells the violence but is unable to dismantle all criminal groups; in this case, the various actors would have to adapt. This could lead to new alliances or violent competition. In both cases, the survivors would need a degree of protection, which in criminal economies is usually provided by bullets or bribes. Therefore, the challenge for the Ecuadorian authorities is not just to go after criminal actors, but to shrink the opportunity space in which they operate.

A third scenario is that entrepreneurs from the Balkans lie low for a while, or relocate temporarily until the situation calms down. As the head of the GI-TOC’s Andean regional office, Felipe Botero Escobar, noted:

I believe that Balkan groups will use other, less conflict-ridden ports to continue cocaine shipments to Europe, at least until things stabilize in Ecuador. In February, a month after the situation in Ecuador began to deteriorate, the UK seized cocaine that had been hidden in a shipment of bananas coming from Santa Marta in Colombia. This method bears remarkable resemblance to that used by Balkan networks in Ecuador, and Santa Marta is currently a relatively peaceful area under the control of the Gulf Clan. Although there has been no confirmation yet of Balkan involvement in this particular cocaine shipment, the operational characteristics and relationship with local criminal organizations in Santa Marta are almost identical to those in Guayaquil.11

What is highly unlikely is that Balkan groups abandon Ecuador completely. They have spent almost a decade building contacts in the underworld and the upperworld and the cocaine economy is booming. The risks might be increasing, but the benefits of being close to the source of supply as well as consolidating links to lucrative retail markets in Western Europe are even higher.

That said, the attention that the crisis has generated should be used to strengthen capacity in Ecuador – for example, in ports, the criminal justice system and prison management – and to enhance international cooperation, including between law enforcement agencies in the Western Balkans and Latin America.


  1. Joe Daniels, Ecuador’s president declares war with drug gangs as prison guards held hostage, Financial Times, 10 January 2024. 

  2. 7.878 crímenes en 2023, solo 584 resueltos: ¿Qué está pasando en Ecuador?, Eluniverso, 2 January 2024. 

  3. Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), Faces of Assassination: Fernando Villavicenio, 2023. 

  4. Observatory of Illicit Economies in South Eastern Europe, Western Balkans criminal groups are contributing to drug-related violence in Ecuador, Risk Bulletin, Issue 14, GI-TOC, February 2023. 

  5. Interview with a crime investigator in Albania, Tirana, February 2024. 

  6. Europol, Properties worth EUR 48 million frozen after cocaine sweep in Ecuador and Spain, 16 February 2024. 

  7. Felipe Botero, Organized crime declares war: The road to chaos in Ecuador, GI-TOC, February 2024. 

  8. Interview with Quito-based investigative journalist, February 2024, online. 

  9. Ecuador Police, Impedimos que vía marítima llegue a Finlandia, 1 tonelada 127 kilos de cocaína, Twitter/X, 12 February 2024. 

  10. Interview with a person familiar with how organized Albanian criminals operate in Ecuador, Tirana, April 2024. 

  11. Interview with Felipe Botero Escobar, Head of the Andean regional office, GI-TOC, April 2024, online.