Advertisement

Drugs cartel kingpin, body double and mystery jailbreak: The narco who plunged Ecuador into national emergency

Adolfo Macías Villamar escaped from prison on 7 January   (Ecuadorean Armed Forces/AFP via)
Adolfo Macías Villamar escaped from prison on 7 January (Ecuadorean Armed Forces/AFP via)

A drug ganglord who ran Ecuador’s most powerful cartel from behind bars is the man responsible for causing a national crisis, with a state emergency declared across the South American country.

Despite being incarcerated since 2011, the walls around his prison cell failed to prevent Adolfo Macías Villamar from successfully operating the feared Los Choneros gang, which has been linked to drug trafficking and murder.

Yet his escape from prison has caused widespread chaos, with President Daniel Noboa forced to impose a nightly curfew after Ecuadorian gangsters unleashed a wave of deadly violence.

Macias, aka Fito, seen posing in his lavishly decorated prison cell (Supplied)
Macias, aka Fito, seen posing in his lavishly decorated prison cell (Supplied)

More than 130 prison staff are currently being held hostage by inmates across five jails, while police officers have been killed and bombs have been detonated.

In one particularly shocking incident, masked gunmen stormed a public TV studio during a live broadcast in the city of Guayaquil, and forced terrified employees to the ground. While they were eventually overpowered by soldiers and arrested, the footage of the cowering presenters has made headlines across the globe.

Known as Fito, the notorious 44-year-old gang leader is believed to be the source of the most recent surge of violence after he successfully escaped from the La Regional prison on 7 January.

He had been due to be transferred to La Roca, a smaller prison with fewer inmates but a government spokesperson said that he may have been tipped off as early as Christmas. While the details of how he absconded are unclear, two prison guards have been charged with assisting him.

It has been reported that the infamous criminal had a medical check up on Christmas Day, and that a body double may have replaced him. Speaking of his escape, former minister of the interior, José Serrano, said that “Fito left through the front door.”

Formed in 2005, Los Choneros has become the most fearsome cartel in Ecuador, and has links to criminal organisations across Colombia and Mexico, including the Sinaloa cartel.

Since the 2020 killing of its previous leader, Jorge Zambrano, the group has fallen into a cycle of violence with splinter groups fighting over territory and control.

This includes within prison facilities, which are controlled by inmates and cartel loyalties, rather than guards or the security forces. While individual cells can be rented from the more powerful inmates, drugs and alcohol can also easily be smuggled inside while different cartels will have control over certain wings.

Fito’s rumoured girlfriend was once caught smuggling herself out of his cell (Supplied)
Fito’s rumoured girlfriend was once caught smuggling herself out of his cell (Supplied)

Through wielding his influence, Fito was reportedly able to continue operating the Los Choneros from his own cell, which had been transformed into a “private bunker”. He has even been able to gain a diploma in criminal law and has amassed a fortune of 23 million dollars through shell companies and illegal activities.

In a bizarre music video recorded by his daughter last year, the bearded gang leader can be seen petting his cockerel and relaxing with fellow inmates, with murals and a bejewelled horseshoe adorning the walls.

Despite being incarcerated for over a decade, he has maintained a relationship with his glamorous girlfriend Verónica Briones Zambrano, who was pictured leaving his cell in the middle of a prison riot in 2021.

She was caught while escaping dressed as a guard but identified herself as Fito’s girlfriend and admitted she had been staying with him for a week.

Aerial view of the Regional 8 prison in Guayaquil from where Fito escaped (AFP via Getty Images)
Aerial view of the Regional 8 prison in Guayaquil from where Fito escaped (AFP via Getty Images)

In an interview with Ecuadorian journalists three years ago, Fito warned that any attempts to move him or other close associated would trigger a “sudden death” scenario with multiple prison riots.

Gang fights and rebellions have increasingly occurred in recent years, with 79 inmates killed in February 2021 after riots broke out in four prisons, while 123 were murdered in Litoral prison the following year.

With cocaine recently reaching a record high, Ecuador’s large ports along the Pacific coast have led it to become an attractive hub for criminal organisations who are hoping to explore new smuggling avenues.

This latest bout of violence has triggered a 60-day state of emergency, with the president ordering that criminal gangs be “neutralised.

Violence has erupted on the streets of Ecuador (AP)
Violence has erupted on the streets of Ecuador (AP)

Mr Noboa also announced that Ecuador would begin to deport foreign prisoners, especially Colombians, to reduce the number of inmates, while schools have closed and streets have emptied.

Eight people have killed and three injured in attacks linked to criminal gangs on Tuesday while two police officers were killed by "armed criminals" in the nearby town of Nobol.

Yet while carnage is consuming the streets of Ecuador, the location of the man at the centre of the chaos remains a mystery.