One gun, 34 dead: Inside Ecuador's war on black-market weapons

By Alexandra Valencia

QUITO (Reuters) - The gun - a 9-milimeter pistol - blazed a violent trail even by the standards of one of Ecuador's most dangerous neighborhoods, the Nueva Prosperina precinct of Guayaquil.

Shell casings from bullets fired by the weapon, recovered at the scenes of 27 separate violent incidents, were linked to 34 deaths, according to a police forensic unit. And a police forensic official told Reuters the authorities believe the pistol remains on the streets.

The havoc attributed to a single firearm exemplifies the challenges for President Daniel Noboa's crackdown on an explosion of violent crime and homicides since 2020, fueled by a sharp increase in smuggled weapons during the same time, many of them from the United States. Ecuador recorded 7,994 murders last year, a nearly six-fold increase since 2020.

Reuters was the first media organization granted access to police bullet-tracing efforts, a key component in Ecuador's fight against crime. Tracing the origins of bullets and guns could help authorities choke off trafficking routes as well as build forensic histories of illegal weapons for future prosecutions, police said.

But it is slow work.

Of the more than 40,000 guns seized since 2019, just 900 have been traced, Major Efrain Arguello, who heads a national forensic investigations unit, told Reuters.

The weapon used in Nueva Prosperina may belong to, or have been rented out, among five rival drug gangs fighting for control of the precinct, Arguello said.

Police are investigating killings, robberies and other violent incidents in connection with the same gun.

"A gun connected to 30 crimes means there isn't just an increase in trafficking, but in the circulation or internal sales of illicit guns," said Renato Rivera, the director of the Ecuadorean Organized Crime Observatory research group.

The Pacific port city of Guayaquil is a hub for drug trafficking and the scene of turf wars between Mexican, Albanian and other foreign cartels that have led to a sharp rise in homicides.

Noboa in January designated 22 gangs - including the five operating in Nueva Prosperina - as terrorist organizations.

Since taking office last November, after he was elected to finish out his predecessor's term, Noboa has increased funding for security forces by 6.6% to $3.52 billion.


But two senior police officials told Reuters that Ecuador is struggling to choke off gun trafficking routes from the United States, Peru and other countries in the region because of a lack of funding, forensic equipment and trained personnel.

Ecuador has just eight microscopes in a country of 17 million for bullet tracing, police said, and 247 trained technicians.

"We are tracing with what we have," Arguello said.

In a small room in Quito's police forensic building, technician Jhony Tapia peered through the only ballistic microscope in the city at shell casings and bullets from five guns used to kill four people at a bar in the Amazon.

Distinctive markings from the firing pins of individual firearms, visible under a high power microscope, allow technicians to match bullets to guns or to other bullets fired from the same weapon.

"The firing pin leaves a mark that is more effective (for tracing) than a fingerprint," said Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Molina, head of the national police arms and explosives trafficking unit.

Tapia will spend the next several hours studying 126 shell casings of varying sizes, he told Reuters.

His findings will be checked against a national police database of bullets and shell casings.

Finding a match is simpler if police also recover the gun, allowing technicians like Tapia to compare markings on the barrel, called rifling, with the marks left on bullets.

Seized guns are checked against international databases run by the United States and Interpol.

Forensic staff did not say whether the guns in the Amazon case had been recovered.

Unlike neighboring Colombia, which has fought drug trafficking networks for decades, Ecuador until recently was considered one of Latin America's safest countries - a popular destination for foreign tourists and retirees.

But after increased drug interdiction along Colombia's Pacific Coast, traffickers shifted their route to Ecuador and violent crime soared.

Ecuador's police have identified seven gun trafficking routes, Noboa's office said.

Three run overland through Peru while a fourth route enters northern Ecuador near the border with Colombia, though police did not specify if the weapons came from there.


Three more gun-trafficking routes originate in the United States: one by air from Miami to coastal Manta, another through Lima and then overland, and a third by sea via the storied Galapagos Islands, police and Noboa's office said.

Police said they have also found gun parts shipped by courier services from Miami or produced using 3-D printing.

In April police seized a 3-D printer in coastal Manabi province which they said was used to make up to 20 gun parts.

Police would not share estimates for the prices of illegal guns but the Ecuador Organized Crime Observatory said that Glocks and other pistols go for up to $4,000 new and $500 used.

Rifles can cost between $8,000 and $15,000, the research group said, while guns made with 3-D printers go for $3,000. There is also a market for homemade guns, it said.

Police seized nearly 10,000 guns across Ecuador last year, according to police data, more than half of them revolvers or pistols, close to double the number of seizures in 2019.

At least a quarter of the traced guns were legally acquired in the United States, but they generally have no record of legal entry to Ecuador, police said.

Authorities have also traced at least 36 guns that were legally exported from the United States to Peru and smuggled north into Ecuador, said Molina, the head of the arms trafficking unit.

Peruvian authorities told Reuters they raided three companies moving guns on the black market in March and criminally charged 18 people.

Molina said police were also looking into the possibility that Ecuadorean gangs could be trading cocaine for weapons from Mexican cartels.

Since 2022, Ecuador has increased its co-operation with the United States to fight gun-running, gaining access to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) internet database eTrace.

Last year the ATF conducted traces on over 500 firearms seized in Ecuador, the State Department and the ATF said in a joint statement, compared to fewer than 100 in 2021.

Yet some analysts say that without a specific plan to tackle arms trafficking, seizures of guns and munitions will remain a side show to drug busts.

"There is no process of intelligence monitoring to locate the providers and systems and get ahead of the arms trafficking," said former army intelligence chief and security analyst Mario Pazmino.

Noboa's office said security forces had had a number of successes against the gun traffickers, including the seizure of 2,291 guns since the president's declaration of war on gangs in January.

(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito, additional reporting by Yury Garcia in Guayaquil and Marco Aquino in Lima; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Suzanne Goldenberg and Julia Symmes Cobb)