In 2023, over 400 people were murdered in Durán, Ecuador, making it one of the most violent cities on Earth.
The root of the tragedy is the drug trade – the trafficking of South American cocaine to Europe in crates of bananas, pineapples and shrimp.
Durán sits next to Ecuador’s most important port city, Guayaquil, and acts as a staging point for drug shipments over which gangs fight for control.
Even the city’s mayor, Luis Chonillo, isn’t safe. On his way to be sworn in last May, his convoy came under attack, resulting in two police bodyguards and a bystander being killed.
Because of the attacks and ongoing threats, the mayor is yet to occupy his office in City Hall, instead moving from place to place.
“I call myself a nomad mayor,” he told the Guardian. “I never spend more than two nights in the same place. I might be sleeping in another city one day and then the next day I’ll do an inspection tour to visit a public work – but then I’ll leave immediately.
“I can’t stick around for long and I can’t tell people I’m coming. From my first day in the job, I haven’t been able to sit in the mayor’s chair a single time. Not once. I’ve been to city hall twice.”
A nurse, who asked to not be named, said four of her friends were killed in 2023. One of her oldest friends was killed in a drive-by shooting near her house in Durán.
“It’s horrific. You see armed people everywhere, robbing people. Every day someone dies. There are bullets every day. You hear explosions and gunfire. So many people have died,” she said.
Mayor Chonillo called Durán a “breeding ground” for violence, with pre-existing deprivation and the economic impact of Covid pushing poor young people into the arms of gangs.
The Ecuadorian president, Daniel Noboa, has designated the gangs as terrorist groups to be “neutralised” by the military.
Sub-lieutenant Jorge Alexander Masache Novillo wants drug users in Europe to be aware of the devastation their habit was fuelling.
“We’ve seen bodies hung from bridges, decapitated, chopped up. They have an infinity of ways of killing people to make rival gangs afraid. Brutal, merciless levels of violence,” he said.
Last year, a record number of Ecuadorians fled towards the US through the perilous jungles between Colombia and Panama.