During his 23-year career as a prominent television journalist in Guayaquil, José Luis Calderón has witnessed a multitude of events, from political turmoil and demonstrations to violent conflicts and natural disasters. However, he had never before been the subject of a news story himself.
The occurrence happened on Tuesday afternoon when the journalist, who is 47 years old, heard loud voices and the sound of individuals rushing through the hallways of TC Televisión, the network he is employed by. At first, they believed it was a physical altercation, but the commotion grew louder and it was evident that it was not.
Calderón was in the newsroom near the studio of the channel when chaos erupted. Realizing something was seriously amiss, he quickly took refuge in the bathroom with two female colleagues and contacted his brother-in-law. He exclaimed, “I’m not sure what’s going on…but we’re in a state of emergency. Please call 911. I’m stuck and hiding…my coworkers are distraught.”
A group of over twelve individuals wearing masks and armed with explosives and guns forcefully entered the studio of the channel next door, while the cameras were rolling. The attack was broadcasted to the nation and eventually, the world. Shortly after, they entered the bathroom and demanded that Calderón and his coworkers come out.
“They were young individuals carrying firearms. Chaotic and impulsive, they appeared joyful and satisfied with their actions – but I don’t believe it was genuine pride,” stated Calderón. “It was almost as if they were treating it like a game, except with incredibly hazardous and deadly weapons.”
Calderón brought his hands together in a prayer-like gesture when one of the weapons was held against his throat. The journalist was then given a mobile phone and instructed to send a message to the outside world. “Inform them,” one of the criminals demanded, “that if the police intervene, we will end your life.”
The journalist, still in disbelief, stated during an interview the following day at his residence that he had never experienced anything like it before. He expressed gratitude for being alive.
The television station assault was the crescendo of a week of bloodshed and mayhem that has confounded a country long regarded as one of South America’s safest places. Elsewhere in Ecuador, scores of prison guards were taken hostage, buildings and vehicles were torched, car bombs detonated, and at least 16 people killed.
Lt. Marcelo Gutiérrez, a representative of Ecuador’s navy, stated on Thursday that Ecuador has always been regarded as a peaceful island and a tranquil land. This statement was made as the country’s navy deployed thousands of troops in response to a series of seemingly coordinated attacks.
In recent years, Ecuador has experienced a surge in violence as Mexican cartels and crime organizations, such as the Albanian mafia, have come to the country in pursuit of lucrative profits from the cocaine market. This has resulted in a significant increase in the murder rate, making Ecuador one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America. Local newspapers regularly feature frightening stories of decapitations, gruesome killings, and explosive attacks.
According to organized crime expert Chris Dalby, drug use in Europe is the main source of violence in Ecuador. He explained that the port on the Pacific coast of Guayaquil is the primary location for exporting cocaine from neighboring Colombia and Peru, which are the largest producers in the world.
The primary path for transporting cocaine across the Atlantic Ocean is from Guayaquil to Antwerp. However, there has been an increase in Ecuadorean cocaine being discovered in smaller ports such as Le Havre in France, Lisbon, Gioia Tauro in Italy, Portsmouth in England, and Gothenburg in Sweden. According to Dalby, who operates the investigative news source World of Crime, cocaine is being found in various locations due to the high demand for it in Europe, which is also fueling the drug war in Ecuador.
Ecuador’s rapidly intensifying crisis caught the world’s attention last August when presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated on the campaign trail after pledging to crack down on corruption and drug trafficking. That crime was blamed on Los Lobos (The Wolves), one of more than 20 organized crime groups squabbling for control of Ecuador’s drug trade – and one of the groups on which the election’s eventual winner, Daniel Noboa, this week declared his government at war.
“After Tuesday’s raid on TC Televisión, the 36-year-old declared Ecuador in a state of “internal armed conflict” and boldly stated that we will never succumb to evil. We will tirelessly fight against it.”
After that, it has been reported that over 22,000 soldiers were instructed to patrol the streets and eliminate the gangs.
On Thursday evening, a team of well-equipped air force and police personnel drove through the quiet streets of Guayaquil in pickup trucks, marking the beginning of Noboa’s new mission to combat gangs.
Their initial goal was Las Orquídeas, a lower-income neighborhood located near the maximum-security prison where the recent turmoil erupted following the sudden disappearance of a well-known gang leader, Fito, from his cell.
Soldiers spread out along a residential road, while a police officer dressed in black used a metal battering ram to forcefully enter a small house. Bright green laser lights moved across the buildings and rooftops, as other soldiers climbed onto structures and searched for potential dangers lurking in the shadows.
In a square bustling with playground equipment such as seesaws, climbing structures, and swings, two partially unclothed males lay on the ground, face-down, while a group of air force soldiers stood nearby with guns. One of the individuals was from Colombia while the other was from Venezuela. “They have tattoos that raise suspicion,” one soldier stated as they questioned the pair. After ten minutes, cries of pain and anguish could be heard from a distance of 200 meters as the men were forced to provide information using sticks, gun barrels, and tactical boots.
Despite attempts to stop it, the killings continue to occur daily. On that day, a murderer entered a barbershop and shot a patron in broad daylight, also injuring a barber, before running away.
The police cordoned off the vicinity using yellow tape typically used for crime scenes. Shortly after the murder, individuals tasked with collecting the victim’s body arrived. The salon’s proprietors wasted no time in cleaning up the victim’s blood and hair, pushing them into the drain and washing away any traces of the gruesome event from their porch. The victim’s devastated mother sought comfort in another woman’s embrace and cried uncontrollably. “I couldn’t believe it,” she sobbed. “They must have mistaken him for someone else,” the woman consoled her.
Calderón was aware of his fortunate escape from a similar outcome. The reporter was released following a successful operation by police special forces to regain control of the TV station’s facilities and capture 13 armed individuals.
One captive was harmed by a bouncing bullet, but aside from that, Calderón’s peers exited the situation without any physical injuries.
The music-loving journalist made his way back to his flat, walking through deserted streets, adorned with posters of renowned jazz musicians Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Once inside, he played some tunes and poured himself a generous serving of single malt whisky.
“This used to be such a calm place. It was completely different. Just tranquility,” Calderón lamented as he reminisced about his childhood in another Guayaquil.
How would Ecuador’s future be described at present? “Uncertain,” responded Calderón. “Completely uncertain.”