Gang-related shooting in Ecuador leaves nine dead
This handout picture released by the Ecuadorean Navy shows members of the Navy guarding an artisanal fishing port in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, on April 11, 2023. - Nice people were killed after dozens of armed men arriving in boats opened fire at a port in northern Ecuador close to the Colombian border, the public prosecutor said on Tuesday. (Photo by Ecuadorean Navy / AFP)

QUITO, Ecuador (AFP)— Assailants shot and killed nine people in northern Ecuador close to the Colombian border on Tuesday in an attack authorities blamed on organised crime gangs.

Dozens of attackers arrived in boats and cars at a small port in Esmeraldas province and then opened fire, the public prosecutor said.

Interior Minister Juan Zapata told the Ecuavisa television channel that the attack was carried out by 30 heavily armed people and said it was related to "a fight between gangs, a territorial fight."

Zapata said there were between 1,500 and 2,000 people in the port, which is home to fishermen using artisanal techniques, at the time of the morning shooting.

The attack happened because fishermen "preferred the security" of one criminal organisation and were targeted by another in retaliation, added Zapata.

In a tweet, the public prosecutor said seven bodies were recovered from the port and two more from a nearby health centre.

Impoverished Esmeraldas province has been under a state of emergency since March 3 due to high levels of crime and violence, as has the port city of Guayaquil.

These areas have become increasingly bloody centres of a turf war between rival drug trafficking gangs.

Esmeraldas, which is popular with tourists, is considered by authorities to be one of the places with the highest levels of crime in the country.

Last month, police found three bodies, including a teenager, wrapped in black bags in the province. Authorities said they were linked to criminal gangs.

"In three weeks here we have seized 1.2 tons of drugs," said Zapata.

Ecuador is located between Colombia and Peru, the world's two largest producers of cocaine, much of which is sent to the United States and Europe from Ecuadoran ports, principally Guayaquil.

Consequently, Ecuador has seen a recent rise in violence and murders related to drug trafficking.

Its murder rate almost doubled from 14 per 100,000 citizens in 2021 to 25 a year later.

In 2021, Ecuador seized a record 210 tons of drugs, mainly cocaine.

Last year, another 200 tons of drugs were seized, leading to the government declaring a war on traffickers.

Guayaquil is one of the cities most affected by the surge in violence, as are prisons.

Since February 2021, there have been eight prison massacres in which more than 400 inmates have been killed, many dismembered or torched.

Gangs that vie for control of the lucrative trafficking trade have often controlled operations from within the prison system.

But it is also the scene of bloody battles between rival gangs.

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