The rise and fall of Los Choneros and its leaders, Ecuador’s drug trafficking opportunists
By Chris Dalby
Jorge Bismarck Véliz España was an ambitious man growing up in Puerto Arturo, a neighborhood in the larger town of Chone. A hub of about 50,000 people located 40 kilometers inland from Ecuador’s Pacific coast, Chone was a busy trading spot for cattle ranchers and farmers.
During the 1990s, Véliz España made a name for himself as a drug trafficker who was not afraid to use violence to suit his own ends, according to a profile in the newspaper El Diario. Relatives began to use his name to collect on debts in the town. His reputation earned him the alias “Teniente España” (Lieutenant España), or simply “El Chonero.”
Around the year 2000, Veliz España moved to Manta, a coastal city and the largest in Manabí province. He had spotted an opportunity. The port of Manta saw a regular flow of cocaine from Colombia, with local drug gangs either helping to ship it from the port or move it through Manabí further south. Veliz España set about trying to unite this enterprise under the control of a criminal group that had taken on his nickname, the Choneros.
The Choneros would become one of Ecuador’s most powerful gangs. By 2011, the group had extensive networks both in and out of prisons that they used to control drug trafficking, manage extortion rackets, and organize contract killings. Their rise and fall from power is a saga of opportunistic alliances and drawn-out feuds, one of which would cost Teniente España his life.
An Early Feud, a Timely Alliance
The first obstacle towards setting up shop in Manta was the Queseros gang, a microtrafficking outfit that helped oversee some cocaine shipments passing through the area. Homicides, kidnappings, extortions, and the Choneros-Queseros feud would soon attract national attention.
But the Choneros eventually got the upper hand by making the right friends. The cocaine trade was already dominated by more powerful players, including Ecuador’s biggest drug trafficker, Washington Prado Alava, alias “Gerald,” who was based in Manabí.
“The Choneros were carrying out car and motorcycle theft, and extortion … but they entered in contact with alias Gerald and thus began their economic fortune,” one intelligence source told Ecuadorian news outlet Plan V.
Gerald had a similar background to Veliz España. According to an InSight Crime investigation, he got his start as a pilot driving go-fast boats carrying cocaine out of Ecuador before building a drug trafficking empire centered around Manabí. At his height, Gerald was sending three to four boats out a week, each loaded with up to a ton of cocaine.
However, Veliz España would not live to bring the Choneros into this new era. The local turf war with the Queseros had put a target on his back. In 2005, Veliz España survived an assassination attempt that killed his wife and injured one of his children. And in 2007, he was gunned down near Quito.
Engineering the Fall of a Kingpin
The man who took over from Veliz España was Jorge Luis Zambrano González, alias “Rasquiña.” A native of Manta, Rasquiña quickly forged a relationship with Gerald. The Choneros would become an armed group working for Gerald, protecting his shipments from the Colombian border and across Ecuador.
Led by Rasquiña, the Choneros began to play a significant role in the cocaine trade through Manabí, helping to send drugs to the United States, Mexico, and Europe, according to El Diario’s profile. Police and press reports from the time also show the Choneros gradually spreading their influence to Los Ríos, a valuable central inland province; Pichincha, surrounding the capital Quito; and Guayas, the province of the country’s main port and cocaine hub, Guayaquil.
The relationship between the Choneros and Gerald was largely due to the success of one senior gang member, José Adolfo Macías Villamar, alias “Fito,” who was arrested in 2011 and managed his criminal activities from prison. A money laundering expert, Fito was charged with laundering the income from Gerald’s cocaine trafficking, overseeing drug shipments, and even organizing refueling stops for Gerald’s drug boats, according to Ecuadorian investigators who worked on the case and spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
This arrangement lasted until Fito, along with a police captain and his wife, hatched a plan to bring Gerald down. Gerald was fed false information that a construction worker had stolen millions of dollars from the kingpin’s safe houses. The construction worker was brutally murdered, and the trio ensured that the police paid attention.
The case unveiled the extent of Gerald’s drug trafficking empire, which allegedly moved a total of around 250 tons of cocaine through Ecuador and abroad. He was arrested in April 2017 in Colombia and extradited to the United States in 2018, where he is currently serving a 19-year prison sentence.
The Choneros moved to fill the gap.
“The Choneros had the structure, the strength, and the contacts needed to consolidate themselves as the most powerful drug trafficking group in Ecuador. They took over the space belonging to Gerald, who was accused of buying drugs from Colombia and Peru and sending them to North America. The Choneros took over that structure and that know-how,” Mauro Naranjo, an Ecuadorian journalist with extensive experience covering organized crime, told InSight Crime.
Bloody Empire Behind Bars
The Choneros leadership had been behind bars since 2011. Rasquiña was jailed that year but reemerged as the Choneros’ leader from prison following a string of assassinations. Fito was sentenced to 34 years in 2011 for a string of crimes, including murder and drug trafficking, and engineered the fall of Gerald from jail. The third man of the group, Junior Roldán, alias “JR,” had been locked up since 2010 for his involvement in multiple homicides.
But incarceration did not stop their growth. In addition to controlling their drug trafficking operations from prison, they expanded into extortion, contract killings, and the trade of contraband. Their power base was centered in three of the country’s main prisons: the Litoral Penitentiary in Guayaquil, where Fito was incarcerated; the Turi Rehabilitation Center in the southern city of Cuenca, which housed Roldán; and the northern Latacunga prison where Rasquiña was based.
Soon, gangs loyal to the Choneros sprung up inside different prisons and helped control drug trafficking nearby. The most successful of these were the Tiguerones — based in the northern province of Esmeraldas, close to Colombia and one of the most important secondary exit points for cocaine — and the Chone Killers, an armed wing of the Choneros which sought to pacify rivals in the all-important port of Guayaquil.
The success of this strategy was largely due to a policy favored by Ecuadorian authorities: mass prison transfers. Regular attempts were made to break up prison gangs by relocating gang leaders and dangerous inmates to other penitentiaries, but this led to specific gangs like the Choneros extending their presence to more prisons and creating new offshoots.
Violence, Internal Rifts
This rapid expansion brought them into conflict with other prison gangs, such as the Cubanos and Lagartos. Prison violence rose, with 49 murders in Ecuadorian prisons in 2019. But outside of prison, the situation may have been even more dangerous. In June 2020, for instance, Choneros leader Rasquiña was freed after getting his sentence reduced; within a few months, he was dead, shot in a shopping mall cafeteria as he purchased drinks with his wife and daughter.
The alleged gunman was arrested, but whoever ordered the hit remains unclear. Some media and police reports point to an internal Choneros plot led by Fito and JR, though this theory remains unproven. In either case, Rasquiña’s death revealed deep fractures within the Choneros organization.
Prison violence rose again. In February 2021, massacres at the Litoral, Cuenca, and Lacatunga prisons left at least 79 inmates dead. Ecuador seemed totally unprepared for this riot, as were the Choneros. Its two biggest sub-structures, the Chone Killers and the Tiguerones, emerged from the chaos as enemies.
Even worse, others were learning from the Choneros’ success: a gang known as Los Lobos led a new gang alliance that cut off the Choneros from precious drug trafficking routes. What’s more, they appeared to be working with Mexican criminal organizations who had long had a presence but had never actively taken part in the squabbles.
“With Rasquiña dead, each commander reclaimed their leadership, emboldened with the support of Mexican gangs. That’s where the war starts,” said journalist Naranjo.
Even Choneros loyalists began to slowly move away. While remaining allied to the Choneros, JR set up his own structure, named the Aguilas.
The resulting gang war, which continues to this day, has been the major driver of one of the sharpest rises in homicide rates in Latin America, many of them in prisons where the leadership and centers for operations often lie. Between 2021 and 2022, over 419 inmates were murdered in Ecuadorian prisons, often in gory massacres, with dozens of inmates killed with machetes, automatic weapons, grenades and even chain saws.
Outside of the prisons, the country saw an 82% rise in homicides over 2022, with 4,450 people murdered, almost all of them in coastal ports where the gangs flourished. The war between the weakening Choneros and a rival federation led by the Lobos has continued to expand. Buoyed by money and guns provided by Mexican drug trafficking allies, Ecuador’s gangs have only grown bolder, leaving bodies hanging from bridges or hiring contract killings to carry out daytime assassinations.
Meanwhile, the Choneros have been largely pushed out of Guayaquil and other areas, although they remain strong in their home base of Manabí. Their leadership was further weakened after Roldán was shot dead in Colombia in May 2023. While Fito remains in prison, the Lobos have stepped into the breach.
“Fito is hiding in the Guayaquil penitentiary, fearing for his life. In the last two years, the Lobos have gained more territory inside and outside prisons. Outside of drug trafficking, they’ve started illegal mining in various provinces. They have displaced the Choneros and have hegemony,” said journalist Arturo Torres, citing various police sources.
This “hegemony” has not led to any reduction in Ecuador’s violence, with homicides increasing by another alarming 74% in the first half of 2023. Even newer groups with no previous ties, such as the R7, have emerged to challenge the Lobos and Choneros.
“These groups operate on results, and the most efficient one will win out,” said journalist Naranjo. “And if one day, the Choneros cease to exist, another group will take their place.”
Credit: InSight Crime