Ecuadorean mayors seek police protection amid spiraling violence

By Alexandra Valencia

QUITO (Reuters) - Forty-five mayors in Ecuador have requested police protection in the past year as violence grips the country, where 22 local officials have died in violent circumstances since 2023, the executive director of the Association of Ecuadorean Municipalities (AME) said.

Officials have come under threat amid a national crackdown on criminal groups. President Daniel Noboa declared a state of emergency in January and designated 22 gangs as terrorist groups after armed men stormed a television channel in Guayaquil and more than a hundred prison guards were held hostage.

The crisis escalated last weekend when the bodies of Brigitte Garcia, the 27-year-old mayor of San Vicente, and Jairo Loor, her communications director, were found in a car in the province of Manabi. Both had been shot to death, police said.

Garcia, who represented a city on Ecuador's coast, was the second mayor to have been killed since 2023.

Agustin Intriago, the mayor of Manta, was killed during a tour of a neighborhood in the coastal city in July, 2023, some two weeks before the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio in Quito, the capital. Villavicencio had campaigned as an anti-corruption candidate.

Seventeen Ecuadorean mayors have been granted police security protection by the government while others have hired private security, Homero Castanier, executive director of the AME, which represents the country's 221 mayors, said late on Tuesday.

Galo Meza, the mayor of Balzar, in Guayas province, is among those who has requested police protection. He told local media on Tuesday that gunmen on Monday night had fired 65 shots at his house, where his wife and son were staying.

"It's a very complex scenario," Castanier said in an interview. "Mayors ... are risking their lives, working with bulletproof vests, surrounded by firearms."

Ecuador's mayors face threats and violence from organized crime groups "who have penetrated every level" of society, Castanier said, adding that mayors in coastal municipalities are at higher risk of being attacked.

The country's ports, including in Guayaquil, the largest city, have become hubs for drug smuggling.

"Right now it's important to carry out a risk analysis for every mayor in the country (...) early warnings can be used to prevent attacks," Castanier added.

Noboa, who took power late last year after winning a run-off election, said on Monday that Garcia's killing is a reminder that narco-terrorists had penetrated public institutions.

(This story has been refiled to change Homero Castanier's title from president to executive director of the Association of Ecuadorean Municipalities, in paragraphs 1 and 6)

(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Paul Simao)