This is how gangs recruit vulnerable youth in Esmeraldas: “You leave the group when you’re already dead”

More than half a million Ecuadorians between the ages of 15 and 24 do not work or study. They are easy prey for violent groups. The situation is more serious in the urban area. In cities where the State was absent, as in Esmeraldas, recruitment is the daily bread and goes hand in hand with the increase in indicators of violence.

“You leave the group when you’re already dead.” Manuel’s voice is hoarse, like that of a man aged before his time. He is 21 years old, but he has seen abandonment and death so many times that he has lost his fear. He doesn’t belong to any organization, “I don’t know what he’s talking about.” But the tattoo says something else.

It is in a place of emeraldsforgotten by the State, by the authorities and politicians who only appear during campaign times, to ask for the vote.

He dropped out of school and did not know what to do, since he was little he felt that he was useless. The closest thing he has ever had to a large, close-knit family is the group. Some have a tattoo similar to the one he got. Those who cannot afford the plate receive the support of other, more experienced members, who extort money from a business owner to get money and charge him the fee. “vaccine”.

Carlos, 18, is a short distance away. Nervous and irritable, he widens his eyes as if he had received a disconcerting announcement. He doesn’t know where his father is. His mother abandoned him when he was very young and he lives with relatives in Esmeraldas. He doesn’t know what to work on and he was suspended from school years ago for bad grades. Those who know him say that he just started “using weed” and that if he continues using it he will have to work for someone in the group to receive the dose.

“No, it doesn’t belong now, but it is sure to go that way”. His relatives will throw him out of the house when they realize that he is using. He has younger cousins, and he may soon be considered a bad influence on them.

Marco, 16, was recruited because he grew up between the street and the market. He believes that his parents died, or so they told him. He grew up under the care of family members who mistreated him; he barely followed the first years of school. He learned to survive carrying sacks of fruit and as soon as he had a chance he fled from that house. The group that welcomed him is like his blood, he says, and for them he is willing to give his lifesomething that can happen at any time, as has already happened with an acquaintance of his, who died very shortly after being released from the Esmeraldas prison.

He likes to watch the videos in which some members of the group appear rapping, they show weapons, solid gold jewelry around their necks and hundred dollar bills with their hands full. He aspires to be like them, but he still has to go through some tests. He already swore allegiance in a ritual that he will not be able to forget. That night he felt welcomed and accepted. He had to drink alcohol and load the gun before taking the oath. He knows that he will soon be put to the test, when he has to sell small doses in packets. If he passes they will teach him to shoot. Only then will you be ready for the final test. Shoot the person pointed out to you, without hesitating or making a mistake.


More than half a million Ecuadorians, between the ages of 15 and 24, neither study nor work, according to official data from the INEC. This represents just over 18 percent of youth in that age group, nationwide. Social researchers talk about the Ninis, but this expression does not reflect the complexity of the problem.

The figure is higher in the urban area. And if the data is analyzed by city, although in Quito the absolute number is higher (almost 63 thousand young people), the percentage in Guayaquil is higher than the national average: equivalent to more than a fifth of the youth population. Esmeraldas is invisible, it does not appear in the official counts.

In Esmeraldas the number of extreme poverty represents twice the national average. Drug trafficking is not the cause, but the due to a structural problem, which is explained by the lack of opportunities and the total abandonment of the Ecuadorian State. This is expressed in the fact that it is the most violent area in the country, there are 44 deaths per 100,000 inhabitantsthree times more than the national average.

“In Esmeraldas there is a social outbreak. It is clear that when there is no state, parallel states appear. We have the worst indices in education, health and employment, Esmeraldas is winning only in one indicator, it is in the number of violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants”. who speaks like this is Jose Antonio MaesoCatholic missionary, born in Burgos (Spain) in 1969, and settled in the province of Esmeralda since 2006.

Father Maeso is the chaplain of the jail in this area. But he also works with vulnerable sectors and participated in the pacification process of gangs and nations that started in 2007, with the Nación de Paz project. As part of his work methodology he uses marionettes and puppets. Among them is Pazita, a character that represents an Afro-descendant woman, who symbolizes the resilience and struggle of the people of Esmeralda.

Maeso refers that two years of pandemic aggravated the situation in the area, “education is free, yes, but it was necessary to have Internet”. Due to lack of rights and abandonment of the State, opportunities in the illicit economy increased. This is not new, although the actors have changed. Some young people found the way to survive in this circuit.

“The problem is extremely complex, it ends up being seen in the leaves and not in the roots. There is structural, intra-family violence, in the pandemic it has generated a mental health problem. The social fabric has been breaking since previous years. Whoever is hungry and has no money thinks about today and does not have the option of thinking about tomorrow”.

The missionary warns that Esmeraldas, Carchi and Sucumbios They never had a border with Colombia, but with the FARC. “This is not a new phenomenon, but there are other actors. Before they were the Colombian cartels. Now they are different organizations. The post-pandemic context ended up changing the scenario. “Whoever thinks that everything is fine, come and set up a little shop and try to open it until six in the evening. Those who have been victims for years of a structure of social exclusion have now become victimizers. In this sense, society is reaping the harvest of what it sowed for a long time and that responds in the first instance to the responsibility of the State, which was simply absent.

The only possible way out, he warns, is restorative justice on the part of the State. That the population has access to drinking water, to services that guarantee a dignified life, with opportunities. “We need to sow small seeds of hope and peace, to rebuild the social fabric”. The people of Esmeralda, explains the missionary, are happy, festive and resilient. “We must rebuild the social fabric from the micro”.


Educational Affairs researcher, milton moon, of the Social Contract for Education, believes that the phenomena are closely related. “In 2017 we did a study on the increase in young people who neither study nor work, we found dramatic effects in terms of the series of psychological repercussions, such as depression, a certain relationship could be made with the topic of suicides. As a result of the pandemic, the figures are increasing.

He affirms that there is a growing number of young people displaced from the labor market and the educational system, who are vulnerable to recruitment by organized crime, especially in areas where this activity is in clear expansion. “A stage is set up, a group of boys in high level of vulnerabilityin more economically depressed sectors, can be recruited for the growth of organized crime gangs”.

The figures that support his argument seem to prove him right. In official data for 2022 from the IACHR, there are more than 36,000 deprived of liberty. Mostly men. More than 40 percent are young. Of the group deprived of liberty, 70 percent only reached basic education, that is, they were unable to continue their studies. “A big question arises, what those of us who investigated the subject thought is that when someone is expelled from the educational system he feels that his life project is over. We confirmed it in the research we did in 2017. The new hypothesis suggests that this void that occurs in boys, due to the lack of a life project, would be filled by another, a project linked to everything that organized crime offers”.

A culture influenced by the stereotype of a life full of luxuries and pleasures, which does not delve into the risk and danger of living outside the law, fosters this phenomenon.

let’s not forget that the pandemic expelled more than 250,000 young people from the national education system. For Luna, it is no less decisive that, according to Unicef ​​figures, more than half of young people between the ages of 15 and 17 have no interest in joining the educational scheme. Many find welcome “in spaces riddled with a series of rituals that impress the youngest”.

Luna has investigated the effects of state policies that, starting in 2010, prevented thousands of young Ecuadorians from having access to university education. “During the complicated process, the high school graduates and their families experienced situations that led them to build a web of tensions and feelings: frustration, indignation, uncertainty, for not knowing what to do with their lives,” according to the research “Exclusion Policies from Citizen Revolution in Access to the University”, published in the book “The University Reforms in Ecuador, 2006-2016”.


“We have to recover the ability to relate and get to know each other, the young people who participate in these groups receive the order to do a job, the job is to kill a person they don’t know. When they meet the person, it’s a little more complicated for them to do something to them,” according to nelsa curbeloconflict mediator and peace writer, during a virtual conversation.

However, part of the problem is the prison reality. “The first thing to achieve is a truce, the government is not in control of the prisons. Not everyone falls for drugs or consumes, but upon reaching that space they become vulnerable and are in danger, both they and their families”.

“How can it be that there is money for concertinas and fences in prisons, but there is not a penny for medicines? We complain about the violence exerted by the detainees, but the State also exercises violence, as if the impoverished beings were disposable”, warns Maeso, who is a chaplain at the Esmeraldas penitentiary.

In a place, not very far from the jail, is Marisela, 21 years old. She hopes to find out what happens to her boyfriend, 23, who was arrested. She’s afraid to admit it, but ever since he joined a violent group (she found out when she looked at the tattoo he’d gotten), he reacts furiously whenever she confronts him. “I asked him to separate, but he just stared at the floor and told me that it was not possible, that you can’t get out of that alive”.

Also read: What happens in Esmeraldas? Its homicide rate is already compared to Mexican cities where violence reigns

This is how gangs recruit vulnerable youth in Esmeraldas: “You leave the group when you’re already dead”