Small Wars Journal

Post-insurgencies and Criminal Subcultures: The influence of Colombian organized crime in Ecuador’s Armed Conflict

Thu, 05/16/2024 - 1:00am

Post-insurgencies and Criminal Subcultures: The influence of Colombian organized crime in Ecuador’s Armed Conflict

Jorge Mantilla and Renato Rivera

Ecuador's descent into criminal violence has attracted international attention. Within four years, the formerly considered peaceful country descended into chaos. The homicide rate increased eightfold in five years. In 2023, Ecuador recorded the highest homicide rate of any country in Latin America, as a spiral of criminal violence raised the number of deaths per capita from 25.5 in 2022 to 44.5, a 74.5% increase from the previous year.[1] The evolution of criminal insurgency caused Ecuador to declare a Non-International Armed Conflict (NIAC) against myriad Criminal Armed Groups (CAGs hereafter) in January 2024.

The consequences and impacts of the course of action undertaken by President Noboa are unknown and will be the subject of study in the years to come. The causes of such a security crisis are the object of debate among academics, analysts, and decision-makers. While the legal frame of action seems apparent with the formal declaration of a NIAC in Ecuador, the policy undertaken to counter the threat is not.

As a Latin American country, the case of insecurity and criminal violence in Ecuador is not exceptional to the region, given that some of its neighbors face various types of criminal insurgency challenges. Colombia's protracted armed conflict has historically affected Ecuador through the expulsion of international refugees, the transit of illicit economies such as drug trafficking, and the spillover of violence and logistics of armed groups in Ecuador through the Colombian border. Along that line, and according to security agencies and media reports the influence of Colombian and Mexican CAGs in Ecuador explains part of the security crisis in the country.[2]

Due to its geographic proximity, the influence of Colombian CAGs within the Ecuadorian criminal underworld seems to be a feasible avenue of explanation of the evolution and power recently exhibited by Ecuadorian CAGs. To unpack such influence and the interactions between CAGs from both countries, we focus on the influence of post-insurgencies in the southern Colombia border, such as the Frente Oliver Sinisterra (FOS) and Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico (GUP), on Los Tiguerones in Ecuador through criminal learning. While the former remains nested into the Segunda Marquetalia--one of the post-insurgency projects in Colombia--the latter was included in the declaration of NIAC in Ecuador for hijacking a television station in January 2024.

Our argument proceeds as follows: criminal learning between Colombian post-FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) insurgencies and Tiguerones in Ecuador results from shared cultural backgrounds, symbolic power, and the border effect between Colombia and Ecuador. Under this perspective, the repertoires, narratives, and symbols shown by the Tiguerones unveil the central role that subcultures and border effects can play in criminal insurgencies and criminal wars. However, traditional counter-insurgency approaches emphasizing the military use of force, such as those implemented for years in Colombia, have serious shortcomings when facing challenges such as those posed by the Tiguerones in Ecuador. In consequence, conducting a NIAC against CAGs such as second and third generation gangs should consider the social insertion of crime and subcultural power to address community-based roots of criminality and avoid violent spirals of homicide rates.

This paper has four sections. In the first, we extend our theoretical perspectives on criminal learning and border effects at borderlands, shedding light on some of the features of the Ecuadorian criminal context and showing the importance of subcultural features in criminal insurgency contexts. In the second section, we define what post-insurgencies are, tracing their development in Colombia while looking at Colombia’s counterinsurgency efforts. The third section focuses on Ecuador’s criminal world, particularly the one of the Tiguerones, looking at how they incorporate FOS (Frente Olvier Sinisterra) and GUP (Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico) elements of identity, codes, and symbols. Finally, building on David Ucko’s account of organized crime as irregular warfare and the insurgent dilemma, the paper discusses the importance of subcultures within counterinsurgency against organized crime groups.[3]

Criminal Learning and the Border Effect

The NIAC, declared by Ecuador, pretends to counter first, second, and third generation gangs. Criminal insurgencies, defined as conflict happening in the intersection of crime and war that involve protracted gang and drug violence, include, among others, a challenge to state solvency and legitimacy through the encroachment of these CAGs in territories structured as criminal enclaves.[4] The involvement in transnational drug trafficking, the evolution of its governance mechanisms, and the development of their military tactics, including terrorism, suggest an evolution of gangs in Ecuador from first-generation gangsor street local market gangs⏤to third generation gangs that involve transnational operations, greater scope of sophistication, and governance influence.[5]

The crescent role of Ecuador and its CAGs in transnational organized crime shows the need to consider the role that subcultural power, codes, and symbolism play in criminal tactics used by second and third generation gangs to control illicit routes inside and outside borders. Groups such as the Choneros and Lobos in Ecuador are third generation gangs since they have an international presence and network connections and operate at high levels of sophistication, including law enforcement and state officials’ corruption. Instead, Tiguerones and Chone Killers are second-generation gangs operating at a market and a national level.[6]

The case of the Tiguerones as a second-generation gang, evolving from criminal wars to a context of criminal insurgencies, yields an interesting avenue of analysis within the literature of small wars because it contributes to filling an existing gap regarding the role of subcultures of crime in criminal governance in Latin America.[7]Previous work in rebel governance found how the moral economy of violence and control builds on local values and codes through which armed non-state actors enforce their authority.[8] In the case of the Tiguerones, we argue that layers of subcultural sets of values, codes, and demeanors are crucial to understanding CAG’s social insertion.

The social insertion of second-generation gangs in Ecuador includes the formation of quasi-cults of personality that serve the CAG distribution of goods and services to people falling within their territory, among other unique characteristics.[9] Likewise, it is recognized that these types of CAGs address elements of symbolic power through a legitimation process based on a kind of domination where the dissemination of messages, beliefs, manipulated norms, and habits drive up their power. This is crucial in an environment where organized crime spreads its information and legitimizes its actions by disseminating messages through social networks and music.

Although Pierre Bourdieu first introduced the concept of symbolic power to explain the subtle, almost unconscious methods of cultural and social domination used to confirm individual social hierarchy, this concept seems relevant in the context of criminal insurgency strategies employed by CAGs. 10] In these scenarios, CAGs seek to establish a perception of reality that is convenient to their interests. Such perceptions enforce their legitimacy through a moral economy where physical violence becomes crucial to social control.

Similarly, in the context of gang warfare, symbolic power is displayed and disseminated to serve the subcultural potency of the gang. In parallel, subcultural potency is the moral illusion of a gang’s superiority compared to law enforcement and opposite sets.[11] While law enforcement superiority always prevails in the long term and gang members are progressively sanctioned, persecuted, or killed, subcultural potency serves internal codes and discipline purposes. As previous literature on organized crime has consistently found, reputation is a needed credential in the world of crime. Without a credible reputation, success is impossible in the criminal underworld.[12] However, reputation must be signaled, communicated, and enforced.[13]

Consequently, criminal learning is a crucial part of gang subculture, as historically stated by criminology.[14] Amid criminal insurgencies, criminal learning provides efficiency, resilience, and adaptation to hostile contexts like law enforcement crackdowns or inter-group violence. The learning process within and among criminal groups involves definitions, attitudes, tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). Criminal learning can occur through various instances, such as members switching sides among CAGs, learning from mass media, learning through combats between CAGs, purchasing training, or through evolutionary adaptability over time.[15]

Furthermore, criminal learning as a mechanism of CAG adaptation used in criminal insurgency does not occur in a vacuum. Instead, the political economy of territorial control and how violence is used to contest, distribute, or share control among CAGs and state officials, including law enforcement, shape how criminal learning occurs. In the case of the interaction between Post-FARC Insurgencies involving Frente Oliver Sinisterra and Tiguerones, criminal learning cannot be explained without considering the border effect between Colombia and Ecuador.

The border effect is the confluence of three factors: a) weak state governance, b) low-risk high-opportunity environment for crime, and c) the propensity for impunity.[16] Therefore, borderlands that reunite these characteristics attract CAGs and foster violence. The borderland between Colombia and Ecuador, particularly the political economy of crime in the gray zone between the regions of Nariño and Esmeraldas, proves consistent with the idea of border effect because of the role that the region plays in international drug trade, as well as a geographical space that unites ethnicity and cultural backgrounds that promotes a sense of belonging in historically marginalized and excluded societies. According to Idler, from a borderland perspective, non-state forms of governance produce their logic of order, in which the pursuit of illicit activities across the border unites a transnational community in what borderlands perceive to be legitimate behavior.[17] We argue that within these transnational communities built upon race, ethnicity, and culture, criminal learning between Colombian post-insurgencies and Ecuadoran CAGs takes place.

Throughout history, Ecuador has been considered a subcontracting hub for Colombian CAGs seeking chemical precursors. However, since the turn of the 20th century, the dynamics shifted dramatically due to the implementation of Plan Colombia and heightened interdiction efforts by the US Coast Guard in the Caribbean. Consequently, the locus of the political economy of cocaine shifted towards the Ecuador-Colombia border.

This transition catalyzed a subsequent enhancement and consolidation of Ecuadorian CAGs involved in drug trafficking, both artisanal and large-scale through ports. This evolution was driven by the dynamics of cocaine production along the border and improvements in logistical chains within Ecuador. Since 2016, Ecuador has strategically entrenched itself within the global drug trafficking economy.[18]

In this regard, “borders are increasingly contested, with states and criminal enterprises seeking their own ‘market’ share.”[19] In some vulnerable regions, such as the one fostering FARC post-insurgencies (FOS and GUP) and the Tiguerones, the distance from state centers and the transnational nature of borderlands creates an environment that promotes a low-risk, high-opportunity criminal culture.

The problem of criminal learning in borderlands is anchored to the first necessary condition of the border effect: weak state governance. The Weberian assumption of borders as the quintessence of state territoriality and power is not only relatively new, but it has also not applied to a large part of the contemporary international system where borders are the contested result of artificial impositions by colonial power or by the asymmetry between central elites and marginalized communities.[20][21] Some contemporary borderlands are spaces where territorial state control has been voluntarily or involuntarily ceded to or shared with actors other than legally recognized sovereign authorities.[22] While these forms of alternative governance are not necessarily new, they are also not necessarily violent or dangerous but rather, on occasion, more effective in providing human security than the nominal territorial sovereignty offered by the state. They are further putting in evidence, once again, the limitations of state-centered approaches to the problem of borders and crime and the illiberal, unintended consequences of liberalism.

Considering the above, the emergence and persistence of these forms of governance are defined by Clunan and Trinkunas as a combination of challenge and withdrawal involving the response or non-response of state bureaucracies, political and economic elites, non-state actors, and populations, altogether shaping the structure of opportunity for extralegal governance in borderlands. [23] In other words, the politics of crime in borderlands, defined as the dynamics and processes through which everyday arrangements between locals, criminals, and the state take place, shape the nature, logic, and characteristics of criminal governance and is also a function of the disconnect between legal and effective sovereignty.[24] From a local and regional perspective, weak state capacity in Colombia and Ecuador is instead seen as a necessary condition for the informal intermediation between capital, local brokers, and the state, as the differentiated presence and capacity due to violent processes of state building, or as the moral economy behind the everyday practices of state builders where the state “is always late.”[25][26]

Several cases indicate the presence of a particular kind of insurgency that blends symbolic power with cultural and ancestral roots on the border between Ecuador and Colombia. The use of prayer to saints and other rites of spiritual protection, Santeria or witchcraft, as well as ‘cabalas’ (cabals) nas part of a learning process that gathers cultural precepts that are widely accepted among criminal networks, represents the process of adaptation of an esoteric culture that embraces symbolic power to establish domination within CAGs.

Apart from this, social aspects, such as the sense of belonging and proximity around the borders where transnational families consolidate, also significantly generate opportunities and learning within organized crime. For example, in the case of the border between Ecuador and Colombia, the presence of ancestral families in border areas, provides an opportunity to create a shared identity where blood ties and shared values such as complicity and silence are highly valued. These factors positively affect criminal learning and the generation of a type of criminal insurgency based on identity and blood ties.

Counterinsurgency and Post-insurgencies in Colombia

Over the past sixty years, Colombia’s armed conflict went through different stages in which insurgencies, cartels, and paramilitary organizations’ trajectories can be traced according to conjunctures of violence and political changes. According to Gutierrez Sanin, three historical periods might be identified within what the literature calls “the Colombian Conflict” that consists of a) The Violence (the 1940s−1960s), b) The Counter Insurgency War (1970s−2010), and c) what he calls an emerging or third cycle of violence.[27] Peaks of violence and the crescent role of organized crime in the Colombian conflict took place between the 80s and 90s during the counter-insurgency war.[28] 

Within this period, some CAGs went through processes of demobilization, fragmentation, and change, which impacted their repertoires of violence, their nature, and their names. A good example is the case of some former Medellín Cartel splinters, that made part of the former paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), to then turn into Los Urabeños, and nowadays are part of Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC), the most prominent profit led CAG in Colombia during the last years.[29][30]

Two milestones of counterinsurgency in Colombia inform the dynamics studied in this paper as they transformed the equation of security for the Colombian state, leading to a negotiation with the former FARC-EP between 2012 and 2016. First, Plan Colombia was a United States program of cooperation in the context of the war on drugs that allocated more than 9.6 billion US dollars in fifteen years towards strengthening state capacity to combat drug trafficking organizations, deliver public security, and neutralize drug trade financial systems, among other goals. After twenty years, Plan Colombia’s balance is complex. On the one hand, it failed to neutralize Colombian CAGs, achieve a long-term decrease in coca crop hectares, or solve the corruption and lack of legitimacy in Colombian law enforcement institutions. On the other hand, it built local security and intelligence expertise and fostered operational and military capacities that were the backbone of the second milestone, Plan Patriota.

Despite that, Plan Colombia, and Plan Patriota are often mistaken for one another; they are different. The former was designed in Washington, and its implementation started with the government of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) as a support package against drug trafficking. The second consisted of a military plan during Alvaro Uribe’s government that aimed to dismantle the communications, mobility, and finances of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People's Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo − FARC-EP) through the creation of high mountain battalions, joint action, as well as a strategy to hit high-value targets from FARC-EP ranks. This ended up unbalancing the confrontation in favor of the state and facilitated a negotiated solution to this insurgency in the following years. The war on drugs and counterinsurgency was indivisible in practice and at the battlefield level.[31]

In addition to changing the correlation between the state and CAGs, integrating joint action into the Colombian security and defense doctrine, and pushing back groups such as FARC-EP and National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) away from main cities, both Plans (Colombia and Patriota) had a considerable impact regarding massive human rights violations.[32] As a result, consistent with other counterinsurgency campaigns that follow a “bullets, not ballots” approach, the Colombian counterinsurgency's success was based on using military forces against civilians and the co-optation of rival elites.[33]

Besides FARC-EP and its post insurgencies, the ELN is the other historic insurgency operating in Colombia. The ELN is out of the scope of this paper for three reasons: a) Its presence and scope of operations in the borderland between Colombia and Ecuador are marginal, which means it is materially excluded from the processes of criminal learning that we investigate here; b) Despite being involved multiple times in multiple peace negotiations ELN has never reached a peace agreement with the Colombian government; c) The ELN’s transborder military, economic, and political assets are concentrated on the border with Venezuela, not Ecuador.

Despite the 2016 peace agreement between the former FARC-EP and the Colombian state, the country was unable to consolidate a transition to a post-conflict scenario. After 2018, indicators associated with armed conflict, such as forced displacement, clashes between CAGs, and massacres, rose to similar levels to those registered before the 2016 peace agreement.[34]

At the same time, former FARC-EP dissidents transitioned into myriad regional militias deeply involved with illicit economies such as extortion, drug trafficking, and illegal mining. These militias were the result of the mixture of former FARC members, local criminal groups, and recruits in zones where the peace agreement was not correctly implemented and weak state capacity persisted.

Despite the variety of these groups, what they have in common is their shared trajectory as post-FARC groups. Such a situation of neither war nor peace created a context in which these post-insurgencies emerged as the dominant CAGs in Colombia. Post-insurgencies are CAGs that evolve from historical insurgencies and are characterized by a) local entrenchment and social insertion with the ability to mobilize local communities around the values of arms, money, and rebelliousness against authority;[35] b) tactical use of ideology and political narratives;[36] c) avoid engaging in military confrontations against the state but conduct war against other CAGs; and d) Use symbols, tactics and forms of operations of historical insurgencies to control illicit revenues.

Not all FARC dissidents’ units are post-insurgents. As an ongoing process with definitive outcomes yet unknown, post-Farc dissidents are heterogeneous, ambiguous, and locally shaped. However, fragmentation and complexity have marked the remobilization of former FARC units in the region of Nariño. What is known today as la Coordinadora Guerrillera del Pacífico (GUP) includes the Oliver Sinisterra Front (FOS) and six other fronts operating in the region.

The FOS became an essential structure for the control of the port of Tumaco and significant routes used to send cocaine to the United States and Europe. FOS leaders, in particular, Guacho and El Gringo were considered the most prominent ‘narcos’ of the Pacific in recent years. In 2018, the attorney general declared that the 700-unit structure was an armed arm of the Sinaloa Cartel [37]. For over the last seven years, warring factions of the FOS (GUP) and another group named the Contadores boosted violence against social leaders. They spiked forced recruitment in one of the central coca crop areas in Colombia.[38]  

These post-insurgent leaders were known for their deep faith in witchery and spiritual protection. For instance, Guacho became a myth even inside the military units that went after him because of the use of witchery and “cerramientos” (enclosures), a practice used to protect a person so the bullets could not reach him. According to testimonies of investigators, on many occasions, Guacho escaped in seconds, minutes, or meters from heavy fire.[39]  

Similarly, “El Gringo,” the FOS top commander until his capture in January of 2024 in Imbabura, Ecuador, and the leading manager of coca crops and cocaine smuggling along the border between Colombia and Ecuador, used these types of subcultural artifacts. For instance, when captured, a pamphlet with the Tunda praying stood out among his belongings:

Prayer of the Tunda: Oh, tunda leaf that God created and that Saint John baptized you in the chalice, I ask you for the virtue that God gave you, I ask and beseech your sacred leaf, the one that God conjured, that to me No bullet, no edge, no military justice, no violent prayers, no spells, no spiritualist invocations enter the body, Tunda, Tunda, Tunda, you will enlighten my mortal enemies (Folk Culture)

The Tunda is a myth of the Pacific coastal region of Colombia and Ecuador, particularly in the Afro-Colombian community, about a shapeshifting entity resembling a human woman that lures people into the forests and keeps them there.

Rather than a signal of evil or the moral perceptions that these practices and codes may convey, what they confirm is the subcultural component of criminal learning. Post-insurgencies operate and expand through the local values and myths of power, danger, and protection nested in the communities they control and come from. An important limitation in the current literature on criminal governance and criminal insurgency seems to be its disproportionate emphasis on strategic and rational approaches, leaving apart what some anthropologists have called the political theology of organized crime.[40]

Since 2022, the government's approach to security and peace has changed radically. With the victory of the first left-wing president in the history of Colombia, Gustavo Petro’s policy of Total Peace was designed to simultaneously negotiate with all the CAGs in the country.  However, there are two unexpected effects of Total Peace: appeasement and fragmentation of armed groups. Both have long-lasting effects and will be definitive in the outcome of this government's peace policy and the security scenario in the following years. Appeasement is the equation of peace in which only one of the parties gives in while the other, despite partially reducing violence, continues with its military plans and territorial expansion. Contrary to de-escalating the conflict, reductions in violence are not sustainable in appeasement. That is why Total Peace has managed to contain certain forms of violence while others have increased.

The second effect of Total Peace is the fragmentation of armed groups. On the one hand, dissidents of dissidents are beginning to appear; on the other, the territorial dialogues in Nariño have revealed the seams of the internal cohesion of the ELN and the enormous coordination problems that this guerrilla group has. The appeasement and fragmentation of armed groups represent a new moment of violence in Colombia, where criminal violence is replacing political violence.

Criminal Learning and Counterinsurgency in Ecuador

Ecuador's increasing crime rates and its criminal insurgency require a thorough examination. In less than a decade, the country's organized crime shifted from a hegemonic model controlled by the Choneros to a process of fragmentation, resulting in a state of criminal anarchy where multiple criminal groups are indiscriminately at war with each other.[41] As a result of this evolution, Ecuador has become the most violent country in Latin America by the end of 2023.

The interplay between Ecuador and the Colombian internal conflict, along with its ramifications for Latin America, is evident in the impact of Plan Colombia on maritime interdiction in the Caribbean. This outcome empowered Mexican criminal organizations, notably the Sinaloa Cartel, to assert dominance over drug trafficking routes from Ecuador to Central America. Consequently, a lucrative pathway has emerged across the Pacific Ocean, with the Galapagos Islands emerging as a pivotal strategic point.

Both Mexican and Colombian CAGs, particularly those in Nariño, have established intricate logistics networks within Ecuador to facilitate the movement of cocaine from the Colombian-Ecuadorian borderland to global markets. This network involves collaboration with former Ecuadorian military personnel, politicians, and a network of businesses involved in money laundering, often facilitated by FARC intermediaries. Over the period between 2010 and 2016, Ecuadorian CAGs became increasingly integrated into the cocaine trade, refining logistical operations across the Pacific and using locations such as the Galapagos Islands for storage and transportation.

However, these dynamics shifted following the Peace Agreement between the Colombian government and former FARC-EP in 2016, leading to a redistribution of power within Ecuador's organized crime landscape. The decentralization of cocaine production along the Colombian-Ecuadorian border prompted other CAGs to become more involved in illicit motivated also by the border effect.  Such decentralization facilitated greater participation by criminal actors such as Albanian, Italian, and Mexican mafias, seeking to exploit Ecuadorian ports for the transportation of cocaine.

The infiltration of transnational organized crime in Ecuador prompted a series of transnational criminal groups to finance the transportation of cocaine by local CAGs. This financing attracted the attention of Balkan and Mexican groups, notably the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), resulting in a challenge to the criminal monopoly previously held by the Choneros since 2010. Transnational financial backing incited opposition from rival CAGs but soon garnered the interest of middle ranks within the Choneros due to shifts in the cocaine trade dynamics in southern Colombia.[42]

The interdependence between the cocaine economy in southern Colombia and the shifting power dynamics of organized crime in Ecuador led to the fragmentation of the Choneros in late 2019, sparking intense disputes and rivalries among local CAGs vying for control over cocaine transportation brokerage.

Likewise, the importance of Ecuadorian prisons as pivotal hubs in the criminal landscape became strikingly evident during the monopolization of crime. The strategic role of these institutions unfolds as they serve as headquarters for the genesis and fortification of criminal insurgency in Ecuador. The case of Choneros, who transitioned into a third generation gang wielding influence beyond bars and onto the streets, underscores how organized crime has honed its focus on commanding prison pavilions.[43] These pavilions are not merely physical spaces but arenas of power, dictating the flow of cocaine routes and payments across Ecuador. They also serve as epicenters for conflict and conflict resolution involving selective urban violence.

These prisons, where CAGs such as Lobos, Tiguerones, and Los Chone Killers first took root, now function as operational centers for assaults against law enforcement structures, targeted assassinations of public figures, including politicians, police officers, and prosecutors, and as logistical hubs for the trafficking of cocaine from Ecuador to global markets.

Understanding the territorial control exerted by CAGs in Ecuador underscores that those who control the prisons wield significant influence over the streets. The fragmentation of several organizations from the Choneros between 2019 and 2020, following the prison massacres, highlights their disintegration [44]. Statistics reflect this rupture: while an average of 8 murders were reported within prisons from 2014 to 2018, this figure surged to 316 in 2021 because of criminal fragmentation.

In the criminal underworld of Ecuador, one criminal organization known as Los Tiguerones is noteworthy. This group broke off from Los Choneros in 2020 and later formed an alliance called Nueva Generación between 2020 and 2023. This alliance integrated several fragmented OCGs from Los Choneros, such as Lobos, Los Chone Killers, and Lagartos. This tactical alliance declared war against the core of Los Choneros, resulting in over 15,000 fatalities in less than three years, particularly in the City of Guayaquil. As a result, 35% of homicides in the country occurred in this area during that time.[45]  

The CAG in question has its origins in the ç, a prison complex that brings together local and international drug trafficking bosses. This prison has seen the emergence and consolidation of relevant criminal groups, such as the Tiguerones in Ecuador. The group was founded by a former prison guard known as “Negro Willy” or “Comandante Negro Willy.” After the separation of the Choneros, he gained representative power in marginal sectors of Guayaquil and the region of Esmeraldas at the borderland with Colombia.

What makes the criminal learning between the Colombian post-insurgencies and the Tiguerones unique is the border effect that takes place in subregions inhabited by a predominantly black population. Tiguerones’ leadership reflects an image of power through graffiti in popular areas of Esmeraldas, where Negro Willy is projected with a camouflage uniform and tactical beret, emulating the leadership figures used by Colombian post-insurgencies.

Commander Negro Willy

Figure of Tiguerones’ leader Comander Negro Willy by El Extra, 2023.

The Tiguerones group uses a unique type of insurgency that involves terror tactics with symbolic power, along with an urban gang positioning through Trap and Reggaeton music. Unlike other CAGs, the Tiguerones’ strategy incorporates violence, power, and a sense of legitimacy in marginalized environments, allowing its members to become antiheroes. This, in turn, helps to attract followers to the group.

According to a report by Ecuador's Vistazo magazine that collected classified reports from the Ecuadorian police, “the power of Los Tiguerones is based on its relationship with the FOS, a dissident of the FARC, which refused to sign the peace agreements in Colombia after 2016.”[46] This relationship was accentuated after the kidnapping and assassination of three journalists in Ecuador in 2018 by Guacho, an Ecuadorian who commanded the FOS until his murder in 2019. The border effect fostering criminal learning between both countries caused Ecuador to experience a new environment of crime that confronts the state with murders and car bombs but also builds symbolically on Esmeralda’s population. For instance, hundreds of children from Mataje in Esmeraldas aspire to be Guacho, motivated by the values of arms, money, and rebellion against authority.

When evaluating the tactics of war and symbolic power, a learning process is evident between post-insurgencies from Colombia and Los Tiguerones. In this case and according to Jones’ typologies, criminality between CAGS from Colombia and Ecuador has taken the form of evolutionary learning from their environment. In this case, from the border effect between Colombia and Ecuador, where post-insurgencies, individuals or groups acquire and incorporate new ideas or behaviors from others.[47]

An empirical instance of this evolutionary and subcultural learning can be confirmed through the lenses of TTPs recently used in Ecuador as terrorist acts. One of them was the activation of improvised explosive devices and car bombs against police units in Guayaquil in 2022 and 2023. These learned TTPs confirm CAG’s territorial power over and capacity to harm. However, the incident with the greatest local and international connotation was a local television channel takeover at the beginning of 2024. According to the organization's interest that presents unique characteristics of this type of insurgency, it sought to send a message of confrontation and terror from Los Tiguerones to the State.

Besides the terrorist insurgency strategies, Los Tiguerones use the same strategy as the post-insurgencies in Colombia to gain the support of the inhabitants of Esmeraldas and Guayaquil slums. Local press reports state that the CAG performs shows for local children on special dates like Christmas. “They give them gifts and convince them that the police are enemies. Even the specialized police, in cases involving minors, have videos of hundreds of boys and girls singing the band's anthem.”[48] Furthermore, their signature song, “Tiguerones'' has over 4.3 million views on YouTube.[49]

One of Los Tiguerones’ top ranks uses symbolic power to gain legitimacy through cohesion and a sense of belonging among its members. This is evident in one of the versions of the commander's speeches.

They see justice (..), and most of all, they are family. Nobody forces anyone, but if you see that in the organization, you feel that warmth, that charisma, that attachment, that united family. You are going to like being with me. He would like to be there.[50]  

Furthermore, when considering the strategic significance of the Tiguerones along the Colombian-Ecuadorian border, it becomes evident that the CAG has emerged as the sole entity actively engaging in cocaine production. This engagement is facilitated by its proximity and collaboration with Colombia's FOS. The period spanning 2021 to 2022 witnessed the Ecuadorian police uncovering numerous cocaine crystallization laboratories linked to the Tiguerones. This revelation underscores the organization's ambition not only to distinguish itself from its Ecuadorian counterparts in the drug trade but also to absorb criminal expertise from the FOS. Consequently, the Tiguerones has become integrated into the cocaine production network of southern Nariño, further consolidating its role in the illicit drug trade.

In this regard, the insurgency campaign learned by the Tiguerones incorporates a type of criminality that adopts terrorism tactics and symbolic positioning to gain legitimacy and recruit followers, especially in marginal areas like Esmeraldas and Guayaquil. This learning process uses strategies like those of post-insurgencies in Colombia, including trap music and propaganda campaigns, carrying out violent attacks, such as detonating car bombs and taking over a television channel, which represents a new reading on a type of criminal insurgency that incorporates new approaches of symbolic power with devastating consequences in terms of violence and destabilization.

Due to the surge in criminal violence in Ecuador, the recently elected President Daniel Noboa's administration proposed the initiation of "Plan Fénix." This security initiative, articulated in rhetoric, aimed to harness technological advancements, enhance prison management, and leverage the Armed Forces for heightened surveillance at ports and airports. Although the plan lacked defined metrics for gauging its effectiveness, the new government pledged to reduce the homicide rate from the 2023 figure of 45 per 100,000 habitants to 41 by 2025.

As part of its anti-crime strategy, Ecuador declared a NIAC by Presidential Decree 111 in January 2024 to combat twenty-two identified “narco-terrorist” groups, permitting the Armed Forces to classify these entities as military targets.

In conjunction with this declaration and the enactment of two states of emergency, the government conducted a popular referendum in April 2024. Nine out of eleven questions posed in the referendum pertained to proposals for constitutional and legal reforms, focusing on augmenting penalties for severe offenses and enhancing the role of the Armed Forces in countering organized crime within Ecuador.

In summary, the government pursued a strategy of penal populism intertwined with the militarization of anti-crime efforts, presenting it as a recipe for success in crime control and violence reduction. However, past experiences in Latin America, including specific instances in Ecuadorian cities such as Durán and Esmeraldas, caution against relying solely on militarization to address the complex dynamics of violence in regions governed by criminal factions.


The prior discussion highlighted the importance of moral economies and subcultural artifacts in criminal insurgencies. Besides strategically oriented and rational choice courses of action such as alliances and coalitions among CAGs to control illicit chain supply in economies such as mining or drug trafficking, cultural and symbolic-based interactions matter.

In addition, evolutionary learning among CAGs within criminal governance has two faces. On the one hand, the evolution of Tiguerones TPPs makes evident its post-insurgency DNA per their territorial control of coca crops and cocaine laboratories enclaves and their incremental use of terrorism affecting the state’s strategic assets. On the other hand, their criminal footprint cannot be understood and engaged in the context of a NIAC without acknowledging their subcultural artifacts, codes, and practices and what this political theology of organized crime means for the populations in which they operate.

Discussing symbolic power is critical to understanding how CAG gains and maintains domination in its territories. They manipulate messages, beliefs, and norms to establish authority, using violence to enforce control. This fosters a sense of group superiority, which is crucial for maintaining cohesion. Organized crime research emphasizes that reputation is carefully managed to reinforce control. Symbolic power thus shapes perceptions and maintains the social order within these groups, enlightening a different approach to how militaries and police officers study and promote public policies on this matter.


[1] Juliana Manjarrés and Christopher Newton, “Balance Insight Crime De Los Homicidios 2023.” Insight Crime. 21 Feb 2024,

[2] Ibid. and Boris Miranda, “Por Qué La Paz En Colombia Le Está Saliendo Cara a Ecuador.” BBC. 19 April 2018,

[3] David Ucko, The Insurgent's Dilemma: A Struggle to Prevail. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022 and David Ucko and Thomas Marks “Organized Crime as Irregular Warfare: Strategic Lessons for Assessment and Response.” Prism. Vol. 10, no. 3. 2023: pp. 92-117,

[4] John P. Sullivan, “Non-International Armed Conflict: Mexico and Colombia.” Revista do Ministério Público Militar. Vol. 48, no. 35. 2021: pp. 467-478,

[5] John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Drug Cartels, Street Gangs, and Warlords,” Small Wars & Insurgencies. Vol. 13, no. 2. 2002: pp. 40–53,

[6] “Boletín anual de homicidios intencionales 2023.” Quito: Observatorio Ecuatoriano de Crimen Organizado (OECO). 2024,

[7] Jorge Mantilla and Andreas Feldmann, "Criminal Governance in Latin America.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 2021,

[8] Kasper Hoffman, “Myths Set in Motion: The Moral Economy of Mai Mai Governance.” Rebel Governance in Civil War, 2015,

[9] Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Cartel evolution revisited: third phase cartel potentials and alternative futures in Mexico.” Small Wars & Insurgencies. Vol. 21, no. 1. 2010: pp. 31–46,

[10] Irfan Ajvazi, "Bourdieu’s Language and Symbolic Power." "Bourdieu’s   Language and Symbolic Power." Authorea. 22 April 2022,

[11] David Matza, Delinquency and Drift. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2010.

[12] Federico Varese, Mafia Life: Love, Death and Money at the Heart of Organised Crime. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

[13] Diego Gambetta, Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

[14] Albert K. Cohen, Delinquent Boys: The culture of the gang. New York: Free Press, 1964.

[15] Nathan P. Jones, "Bacterial Conjugation as a Framework for the Homogenization of Tactics in Mexican Organized Crime." Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Vol 44, no. 10, 2021: pp. 855–884, https://doi:10.1080/1057610X.2019.1586356.

[16] Annette Idler, “The Intersections of Smuggling Flows” in Max Gallien and Florian Weigand, Eds., The Routledge Handbook of Smuggling. London: Routledge, 2021: pp. 286–300, https://doi:10.4324/9781003043645-21.  

[17] Ibid.

[18] Renato Rivera-Rhon and Carlos Bravo-Grijalva, “Crimen Organizado Y Cadenas De Valor: El Ascenso Estratégico del Ecuador en la economía del narcotráfico.” Urvio (Revista Latinoamericana de Estudios de Seguridad). Vol. 28, pp. 8–24, 

[19] John P. Sullivan, “Criminal Insurgency: Narcocultura, Social Banditry, and Information Operations.” Small Wars Journal. 3 December 2012,

[20] Thomas Risse, Governance without a State?: Policies and Politics in Areas of Limited Statehood.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

[21] Op. cit., Idler at Note 16, p.7.

[22] Anne Clunan and Harold Trinkunas, Ungoverned Spaces: Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

[23] Op. cit., Clunan and Trinkunas at Note 22, p. 3.

[24] Op. cit., Mantilla and Feldman at Note 7.

[25] Margarita Serje, El revés de la nación: territorios salvajes, fronteras y tierras de nadie.  Bogotá: Universidad de los Andes, 2011.

[26] Julieta Lemaitre, El Estado siempre llega tarde. La reconstrucción de la vida cotidiana después de la guerra. Bogotá: Universidad de Los Andes-Siglo XXI Ediciones, 2019.

[27] Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín, ¿Un nuevo ciclo de la guerra en Colombia? Bogotá: Debate. 2020.

[28] Marco Palacios, Violencia pública en Colombia, 1958-2010. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2012.

[29] Juan Diego Restrepo, Las vueltas de la Oficina de Envigado. Bogotá: Icono, 2015.

[30] During the second period of former president Juan Manuel Santos 2014-2018, post-paramilitary groups were named criminal bands (bandas criminales − BACRIM) as part of Santos’s security policy. However, this was a state-centered category with which these groups never identified themselves.

[31] “Plan Patriota.” Bogotá: Comisión de la Verdad. 4 March 2024,

[32] John Lindsay-Poland, Plan Colombia: U.S. Ally Atrocities and Community Activism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

[33] Jacqueline Hazelton, Bullets Not Ballots: Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021.   

[34] Jorge Mantilla, “Neither ‘power Vacuum’ nor ‘criminal Anarchy’: Colombia’s Peace Meltdown.” Urban Violence Research Network. 27 September 2020,

[35] Mario Aguilera,"Disidencias: ¿rebeldes Obstinados, Exguerrilleros, Narcotraficantes O Guerillas Ambiguas?” in Victor Barrera and Francisco Guiterrez Sanín, Eds., Violencias que persisten: El escenario tras los Acuerdos de Paz. Bogotá: Universidad del Rosario, 2020, pp. 2025-329.

[36] Chris Alden, Monika Thakur, and Matthew Arnold. Militias and the Challenges of Post-Conflict Peace: Silencing the Guns. London: Zed Books, 2021.

[37] “Fiscal De Colombia: Alias ‘Guacho’ Es El Brazo Armado Del Cartel De Sinaloa.” CNN En Español. 20 April 2018,

[38] “Frente Oliver Sinisterra: El Blanco de las autoridades colombo-ecuatorianas.” Verdad Abierta. 13 April 2018,

[39] “Ni La Brujería Le Sirvió a ‘Guacho’, Cayó Solo En La Tierra Que Lo Hizo Capo.” Turbaco News. 22 December 2018, 

[40] Claudio Lomnitz, Para una teología política del crimen organizado. México: Colegio Nacional de México, 2023.

[41] Nathan P. Jones, Irina A. Chindea. Daniel Weisz Argomedo, and John P. Sullivan, "A Social Network Analysis of Mexico’s Dark Network Alliance Structure." Journal of Strategic Security. Vol. 15, no. 4: pp. 76−105, and Evan Perkoski, Divided Not Conquered: How Rebels Fracture and Splinters Behave. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022.

[42] Op. cit., OECO at Note 6.

[43] Javier Lizcano, “Guerra de pandillas rompe récord de asesinatos al norte de Ecuador.” Insight Crime. 28 October 2022,

[44] Jorge Mantilla, Carolina Andrade and María Fernanda Vallejo, “Why Cities Fail: The Urban Security Crisis in Ecuador,” Journal of Strategic Security. Vol 16, no. 3. 2023: pp. 141−153,   

[45] Op. cit., OECO at Note 6.

[46] “Quiénes Son Y Cómo Nacieron Los Tiguerones? Estarían Detrás Del Atentado En El Cristo Del Consuelo.” Vistazo. 16 August 2022,

[47] Op. cit., Jones at Note 15, p. 12.

[48] Yalilé Loaiza, "Narcoestética, Violencia Y Poder: Así Utilizan La Música Las Bandas Criminales De Ecuador." Infobae. 1 October 2023,

[49] “Tiguerones,”

[50] “Ecuador’s War with Drug Gangs. Ecuador: Under Fire.” Al Jazeera. 15 February 2024,

About the Author(s)

Renato Rivera holds the position of Director at the Ecuadorian Observatory of Organized Crime, affiliated with the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF). Additionally, he contributes to academia as a Professor of Security and Geopolitics at the University of the Americas (UDLA). Currently pursuing a PhD in Rule of Law and Global Governance from the University of Salamanca, Renato also holds a Master's Degree in International Relations and International Political Economy and a Research Master's Degree in International Studies. He has authored over ten high-impact academic papers focusing on Latin American Security and Organized Crime.

Jorge Mantilla is a political scientist who holds a PhD in Criminology, Law, and Justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has worked as a practitioner and analyst with public agencies and international organizations on armed conflict, public safety, and organized crime. His current interests are criminal governance, borderlands, and organized violence.