Police capture suspected leader in Esmeraldas dock killings, continue the search for others
President Guillermo Lasso announced Wednesday night the arrest of a man he described as the organizer of the massacre of nine fishing port workers in Esmeraldas. The president did not provide the suspect’s name, referring to him by his alias, El Coco, leader of Los Tiguerones criminal gang.
“The suspect has identified others involved in this atrocity and we will announce more arrests soon,” Lasso said.
Following the president’s announcement, Interior Minister Juan Zapata reported that more than 75 raids have been conducted in the Esmeraldas area, resulting in three arrests beside El Coco’s as well as the confiscation of a number of firearms and explosives.
According to the latest police report, an estimated 25 heavily armed gunmen arrived by sea and land Tuesday morning and fired at the fishing dock workers indiscriminately. It said there did not appear to be specific targets and the aim of the attack was to kill as many workers as possible, some of whom were shot in the water after jumping off a dock.
Zapata said he believed the men were targeted because they refused to pay “protection money”, referred to as “vaccination.” “The workers apparently had paid another gang for protection but members of that gang were not available to stop Tuesday’s shootings.” According to Zapata, an unknown number of gangs in Esmeraldas, Manabi and Guayas Provinces engage in extortion of businesses, threatening the businesses and owners if they don’t pay the fees demanded.
In Tuesday’s murders, police said some of the victims were boatmen, some hauled cargo and others worked in the warehouses on the water’s edge, where shrimp and fish are sorted and stored. The youngest was 28 and the oldest 79 years old. Video shared on social media shows a boat full of men arriving at the port. Dozens of shots can be heard ringing out as people on the dockside flee in panic. Police said that at least 180 rounds had been fired during the attack.
Zapata believes there is a connection between illegal drug activities and the attack. “Although extortion appears to be the central motive, the Tiguerones gang is also interested in securing the port for drug transport activities and they may have been threatened by the second gang the workers had employed.”
Esmeraldas is located on Ecuador’s northern border with Colombia and many of the gangs slip back and forth across the border to escape the security forces.
According to police, the Esmeraldas attack is unrelated to the murder Thursday of two fisherman at Posorja, near Guayaquil. Preliminary reports are that the attack occurred on the high seas and the motive was to steal fishing equipment. “We are investigating the crime for murder and theft since the perpetrators took a fishing motor and nets during commission of the crime.