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Story Publication logo May 28, 2024

Ecuador’s Los Lobos Narcotrafficking Gang Muscles In on Illegal Gold Mining


a boat on a river in the Ecuador amazon

As illegal gold mining spreads across the largest rainforest, this project looks at its brutal...

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Image by Dan Collyns.
  • For the last several years, one criminal gang has become increasingly involved in illegal gold mining in seven of Ecuador’s 24 provinces, according to intelligence reports seen by Mongabay and investigative news outlet Código Vidrio.
  • Los Lobos, affiliated with Mexico’s notorious Jalisco New Generation cartel, have entered illegal gold mining areas, removing or extorting miners, and taken control of almost all stages of the mineral’s supply chain.
  • The group has reached remote areas, including inside Podocarpus National Park, where reports show thousands of illegal miners are operating — part of what experts say is a criminal assault on Ecuador’s Amazon region that’s driving violent crime.
  • Indigenous leaders say they’re increasingly afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation, while several local officials opposed to illegal mining have been attacked or even killed.

The road leading to Podocarpus National Park winds around lush, forested mountains that seem to stretch endlessly on the horizon. Covering 1,463 square kilometers (565 square miles), the park stretches from the foothills of the eastern Andes into the rainforest, straddling the southern Ecuadorian provinces of Loja to the west and Zamora Chinchipe to the east. It extends from the foggy alpine shrubland known as the páramo, at 3,600 meters (11,800 feet) above sea level, down into tropical forest at 900 m (3,000 ft), with waterfalls and boulder-strewn crystalline rivers like the Bombuscaro.

But even this remote place named after the only genus of conifer trees in South America has not escaped the crime wave sweeping Ecuador, as a single criminal gang, Los Lobos, has extended its grip deep into the heart of the park in the last few years.

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According to intelligence reports seen by Mongabay and Ecuadorian investigative news outlet Código Vidrio from September 2023, an estimated 2,200 people — Ecuadorians as well as Peruvians, Colombians and Venezuelans — were working illegally in a dozen different sites inside the park. They include those who charge dynamite to blow open rocks and open up tunnels, cart pushers and rock grinders, as well as those supplying food, fuel, drugs like cocaine and marijuana, and even sex workers. So remote were the spots in an area known as San Luis, deep inside the park, it took specially trained jungle troops 12 hours by foot to reach the zone.

Dense vegetation in the Podocarpus National Park. Image by Sabrina Setaro via Wikimedia Commons.

According to the reports, each miner is forced to pay an extortion fee, or vacuna, of up to $1,000 every month to the gang, which sells drugs and smuggles arms and explosives from nearby Peru. But there’s been some resistance to the gang’s dominance; reports seen by Mongabay and Código Vidrio indicate that in late February this year, four gang members were killed in clashes with miners who refused to pay. In retaliation, Los Lobos killed two men, reportedly family members of miners in communities outside the park.

But Podocarpus is just one of the gang’s latest conquests; due to the recent spike in Ecuador’s illegal gold mining and the mineral’s increasing value on international markets, alluvial mining across the country has been inviting more intense criminal activity.

Military and police intelligence documents, as well as data shared by three officers and agents with Mongabay and Código Vidrio, appear to confirm that Los Lobos is the dominant gang in the country, ahead of rival drug-trafficking gang Los Choneros.

“Criminal organizations dedicated to drug trafficking are expanding their portfolio of services to other criminal activities,” said Renato Rivera, technical coordinator of the Ecuadorian Organized Crime Observatory.

“Above all they have not only dedicated themselves to the flow of cocaine from Colombia to the ports, but also to controlling and extorting illegal mining operations in the country, especially in the Amazon and in the highlands where they have expanded a lot.”

For Chilean security specialist Pablo Zeballos, gangs taking control of illegal mining operations is part of an emerging trend of diversification of criminal markets.

“In regions of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia, these activities are being controlled by criminal networks and transnational organizations that submit people to extortion, exploitation and semi-slavery, as well as [causing] significant environmental devastation,” Zeballos, a former officer with Chilean police intelligence, told Mongabay and Código Vidrio.

Los Lobos hijacks the gold rush

For the last seven years, the gang has been involved in illegal gold mining in up to seven provinces across Ecuador — from Imbabura in the north, Napo, Orellana and Sucumbíos in the Amazonian northeast, to Azuay and Zamora Chinchipe in the south — according to interviews and intelligence documents seen by Mongabay and Código Vidrio. At each site, it has either extorted or removed miners to take over, while taking control of the entire supply chain.

“Los Lobos has come armed to the teeth to this once peaceful place,” Oscar Peralta, chief ranger at Podocarpus National Park, told Mongabay and Código Vidrio, as he patrolled in his car. “We can’t go into those areas without military support; we are unarmed.”

Hauls of weapons seized by Ecuador’s armed forces in illegal gold mining hub Camilo Ponce Enriquez canton, in El Azuay Province, southern Ecuador. Image courtesy of Ecuador military forces.

He added that, “There’s a lot of gold in San Luis [where the mining takes place] in Podocarpus; people say you can see the lines of gold in the earth.”

The lure of gold, discovered by a foreign mining company in the late 1970s but never exploited before the park was created in 1982, hasn’t waned. “People remember where it is and they look for it,” a park ranger tells us, asking not to be named.

The park hosts 1,200 endemic plant species, as well as the rare Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus), mountain tapir (Tapirus pinchaque), puma (Puma concolor), jaguar (Panthera onca) and the world’s smallest deer, the northern pudu (Pudu mephistophiles). The park can only be accessed by trails at four entrance points on its perimeter. Inside, the terrain is so rugged and the foliage so dense that few save the park rangers can navigate it.

“[Los Lobos] have tried unsuccessfully to enter sectors controlled by large groups of illegal miners in Zamora,” a military intelligence agent, who follows their trails in Zamora Chinchipe province, told us, also on condition of anonymity. In these areas, especially in the park, the miners have set up an armed presence and have large networks of informants who warn of the arrival of outsiders.

Waste from artisanal mining runs from the Nambija River into the Zamora River, the main waterway in Ecuador’s southern Zamora Chinchipe province. Image by Dan Collyns.

In late February, Mongabay followed a military convoy to one of the park’s entrance points, known as Loyola.

Soldiers from the 17th Jungle Battalion were camped at the park’s southeastern entrance. Gary Fuentes, a captain with the battalion, said scores of people had streamed across a rope bridge, exiting the park, among them Venezuelans and Colombians, as soldiers from the battalion had marched deeper into the park in search of gang members and miners.

A few hundred meters inside, on the banks of the San Luis River, tracks of excavators and backhoes led into the park, and soldiers stopped a handful of men and women for searches as they traipsed down the waterway toward the rope bridge exit.

One of them, Jackson Guevara, 29, said he had walked four hours from where he claimed to have been panning for gold in tailings left by the excavators.

Soldiers from the 17th Jungle Battalion search Jackson Guevara, 29, an illegal mine worker who was leaving the Podocarpus National Park, where any extractive activity is prohibited. Image by Dan Collyns.

He denied any involvement in criminal activity, saying he was only trying to provide for his family. “The situation is very difficult. I had no luck [finding gold], all I did was get in debt [buying] food,” he told Mongabay. “On a good day, I can make $300, but sometimes three or four days will pass without making anything.”

Many of the young men left unemployed because of the COVID-19 pandemic turned to illegal mining or joined criminal gangs. In March 2024, Ecuador’s rate of adequate employment, jobs that pay more than the minimum wage, was just 34.4%.

“I think a lot about how it affects the park, but there’s no other place to work,” Guevara said. The soldiers let him pass, along with the other men and women who said they were just workers and cooks.

Mining rivers for gold, known as alluvial mining, isn’t new in the region, said José Villa, 55, a park ranger who has spent 37 years protecting Podocarpus. But in recent years, “it has grown because beyond the pollution and destruction it causes, now there is more crime,” he said.

There’s been a rapid expansion in illegal gold mining in Ecuador recently, which in 2021 covered 7,495 hectares (18,520 acres) of land — more than 10,000 football fields — or a 300% increase from 2015, according to data from the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project. This rapid rise, driven by record international gold prices, has attracted Ecuador’s most powerful drug-trafficking gangs into the lucrative trade that also allows them to launder profits from the cocaine trade more easily.

The promise of easy money means mining easily infiltrates poor villages that live from farming, particularly Indigenous communities where young men, flush with cash from mining, often spend their earnings on alcohol, while the women get involved in relationships with foreigners who move on to the next mine, sometimes leaving children behind.

Soldiers patrol one of the entrance points into Podocarpus National Park in Zamora Chinchipe province, southern Ecuador. Image by Dan Collyns.

Community leaders who oppose mining, like Washington Tiwi, 50, president of the Shuar Federation in the Zamora Chinchipe region, face death threats if they speak out.

“We appear in the media and the miners are always looking to see who is making a fuss. As happened with comrade Jose Tendetza,” he said, referring to a Shuar leader who opposed the Mirador copper mine, a legal operation, in the same region and was killed in 2014.

Tiwi said the recent presence of hired killers, known as sicarios, working for gangs makes it much more dangerous to talk. “Say I’m a miner and this leader is really screwing with me. I can pay to solve this problem,” said Tiwi, whose community of Kiim created the 5,497-hectare (13,583-acre) Tiwi Nunta protected reserve on the margin of Podocarpus National Park.

“We leaders are threatened but the authorities turn a blind eye due to bribes and behind that is organized crime,” Tiwi added.

Reports of the presence of Los Lobos date back to 2019, but authorities, especially the military and the police, face problems combating them without information about their operations leaking out. An intelligence source who spoke to Mongabay and Código Vidrio on condition of anonymity for safety reasons said Los Lobos has networks of collaborators, including local authorities, police and prosecutors.

Police and military investigators warn in their reports that some municipal, regional and police officials appear to be shareholders in illegal mining concessions and use their political power to their advantage.

Those who don’t collaborate in exchange for money keep quiet and don’t intervene out of fear, the source said.

Violent crime has soared in Ecuador, with a sixfold increase in the homicide rate over the last three years, according to a study by Fernando Carrión, a security expert with the Latin American Social Sciences Institute in Quito. Between 2020 and 2023, the rate went from 7.84 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants to 47.28.

Global demand for cocaine has transformed Ecuador’s local gangs into multimillion-dollar criminal enterprises, backed by Mexican cartels that have brought over their trademark brutality, evident in the vicious gang warfare in jails that have also spilled out into the streets.

What’s more, Ecuador’s dollarized economy and location — sandwiched between the world’s two largest cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru — make it an ideal transit point to move drugs to the U.S. and Europe. In 2023, Ecuador had the 11th-highest crime score in the world.

In January, President Daniel Noboa labeled 22 crime gangs as terrorists, authorizing the military to “neutralize” them “within the bounds of international humanitarian law.” Of these groups, only Los Lobos has managed to dominate the lucrative illicit trade in gold.

Ecuadorian police say Los Lobos is the main suspect in the recent brazen killings of two local mayors who opposed their activities in illegal mining hotspots in Ecuador.

José Sánchez, 52, was gunned down by suspects dressed in military uniforms and wearing helmets and bulletproof vests as he went jogging with a security guard in the canton of Camilo Ponce Enriquez, a hub for illegal mining in Azuay province, on the edge of the Andes in southern Ecuador. Both were killed at the scene on April 17, with more than 20 bullets fired into them.

Sánchez was a vocal critic of Los Lobos and had survived two previous attempts on his life last year. The mayor had been coordinating a large-scale operation with the military and the police to dismantle Los Lobos’ criminal strongholds in key sectors of the canton, which borders the province of El Oro. Police allege the killing was in retaliation for the arrest in late March of Vicente Angulo, known as Comandante Vicente, one of Los Lobos’ ringleaders in Camilo Ponce Enriquez.

A soldier from the 17th Jungle Battallion at the Loyola entrance to Podocarpus National Park on its southern side. Image by Dan Collyns.

Angulo had been on the run, accused of organized crime, and was on trial with five other gang members. He played a vital role by extorting miners, according to the intelligence reports seen by Mongabay and Código Vidrio, while also coordinating the shipment of explosives and weapons smuggled from the south to other provinces of the country where the gang has increased its presence.

Sánchez’s predecessor as mayor, Baldor Bermeo, was also attacked, in February 2023, by hired assassins who seriously wounded him with gunfire. This was not the first attempt: A year earlier, an attack on a mine Bermeo owned left three people dead and five wounded.

All these acts of extreme violence have escalated since 2023, as Ecuador’s armed forces have hit Los Lobos in a series of raids, seizing weapons in Camilo Ponce Enriquez.

Two days after the killing of Sánchez, motorbike-riding suspects shot dead Jorge Maldonado, mayor of the nearby canton of Portovelo, in El Oro. Maldonado was a mining businessman and had interests in at least two gold mines in cantons in Azuay province. With a mining tradition going back to the 19th century, Portovelo is a center for gold processing and refining, but also for laundering illegally mined gold.

Gold launders dirty money

Zeballos said the illegally obtained gold is laundered through front companies that the state can’t supervise or control, despite anti-money-laundering regulations.

In recent years, he said, gold has become the most valuable currency in the criminal world, given the incredible ease with which it can be introduced into the legitimate economy around the world. This trend supports his theory, shared by security expert Douglas Farah, president of IBI Consultants LLC., that Latin America is experiencing a third wave of transnational crime.

“They have become characterized by their ability to evolve rapidly, by their transnational nature, their focus on strengthening their brand and the creation of a complex network of relationships and interconnections between different criminal entities,” Zeballos said.

He warned that Los Lobos, linked to Mexico’s powerful Jalisco New Generation cartel, isn’t just rapidly diversifying its criminal portfolio, but is also crossing national borders. There’s evidence that it’s active in Chile, Peru and Colombia, where its leaders have formed alliances with local gangs and armed groups, especially in border areas, he added.

Los Lobos continues to extract gold from the Buenos Aires region in the northern province of Imbabura, from where the gang originates. According to an intelligence source, it trucks the gold about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) south, to the towns of Portovelo and Camilo Ponce Enriquez, where refineries melt down the ore into 18-karat gold bullion. The truck drivers allegedly pay bribes to evade police checks, carrying between $40,000 and $60,000 per trip to pay the authorities, the source said.

Children in the Shuar community of El Kiim, on the edge of Podocarpus National Park. Image by Dan Collyns.

But Los Lobos doesn’t only extract gold from around 20 illegal mines; it also extorts money from more than two dozen legal mining concessions in Camilo Ponce Enriquez canton. In addition, it imposes a fee of between $300 and $900 on each illegal miner who wants to work, in the form of a “share.” All these criminal activities earn Los Lobos an estimated $3.6 million a month, or $43.2 million a year, according to the numbers cited in the intelligence reports shared with us.

Back on the fringes of Podocarpus National Park, life in the Shuar community of Kiim continues its bucolic rhythm. In the evening, families bathe in the cool waters of the river after which their community is named, which flows down from the high ridge behind the village. It’s still clean, unlike the Yacuambi River, heavily contaminated by illegal mining tailings, and marks the entrance to the Indigenous community that’s connected to a main road.

For Tiwi, whose Shuar name, Kiro, means “a frog whose call heralds rain,” illegal mining doesn’t only contaminate their river water but also their traditional way of life — once free from drug and alcohol abuse and the corrosive influence of outsiders who offer money to mine their lands.

Aware of the existential risk, Tiwi said all he can do is stand up to the mining and try to reinforce the Shuar’s cultural identity. To do nothing, he said, would mean the end of their culture.

“I have my wife and my children, I don’t want to lose my life, I have to fight for them,” he said.


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