The video, apparently filmed inside the Guayaquil prison and posted on YouTube over the weekend, pays homage to José Adolfo “Fito” Macías Villamar, a convicted murderer who has helped lead Los Choneros — a gang that reportedly partners with the Sinaloa Cartel to move cocaine to the United States.
Mariachi Bravo’s “El Corrido del León” — “The Lion’s Ballad” — taunts a government that has proved incapable of seizing control of its prisons back from the increasingly powerful gangs. With a high-production-value video recorded in part in a facility that holds Ecuador’s most dangerous convicts, the criminals are sending a clear message about who’s in charge.
“Es el jefe y patrón, señores,” the men sing. He’s the boss.
By Monday evening, it had racked up more than 150,000 views.
Just weeks ago, in an attempted show of force, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso sent thousands of security personnel into the Guayaquil prison to transfer Fito to a maximum-security prison. “Ecuador will recover peace and security,” Lasso posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
Then, earlier this month, a judge authorized Fito’s return to the regional prison. A drone carrying explosives landed on the roof of the maximum-security facility. And on Friday night, Fito appeared in the ward patio of the regional prison, beside murals bearing his name. At one point he was recorded stroking a rooster in the prison, flashing a massive gold ring. His daughter, a musician who goes by Queen Michelle, sings about her father, describing him as a family man.
Journalists questioned how, in a prison system that rarely grants access to camera operators, a video crew was able to film its most prominent inmate. Prison authorities have not provided an explanation.
The video was more evidence of the gangs’ control of a prison system that has suffered record levels of violence between competing drug-trafficking groups. Hundreds of inmates have been killed in bloody battles in the past two years. Gangs are known to smuggle in drugs, cellphones, weapons and grenades, explosive devices they use to blow holes through walls. Prison guards have reportedly stood outside prison walls while combatants have beheaded and dismembered enemies.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, Ecuadorian lawyer and professor David Cordero-Heredia says, that the gangs are capable of bringing in a camera crew to film a music video. Cordero-Heredia studies the prison system.
“It’s impossible that these types of things could happen without the intervention of state forces,” Cordero-Heredia said. But releasing the video on social media, he said, shows the gangs no longer feel the need to act in secrecy.
It’s the kind of bold mockery seen by prominent drug lords in decades past in Colombia and Mexico.
“We’ve heard narcocorridos that are Mexican or Colombian, but never Ecuadorian,” said Christian Palacios, a human rights advocate and researcher who focuses on Ecuador’s prison system. “This is normalizing crime and showing, in a public way, that it’s possible to triumph being a delinquent.”
In Mexico, the ballads known as narcocorridos — a coinage that combines the Spanish words for “drug lord” and “running” — have long celebrated the exploits of Robin Hood-styled outlaws and their battles with law enforcement. Some Mexican states have banned them from being played in public spaces. Similar songs about drug traffickers and guerrillas can be heard blasting from speakers in bars in certain rural parts of Colombia, where they are known as corridos prohibidos — prohibited ballads.
The genre’s arrival in Ecuador might reflect the growing influence of the Mexican cartels that are increasingly working with local gangs to compete for control of drug routes in the country. Ecuador, sandwiched between the world’s two biggest coca producers, Colombia and Peru, has emerged as a key transit country for cocaine flowing to the United States and Europe — and a battleground for drug traffickers and gangs, who have brought record levels of violence to what was once seen as a relatively safe haven in the region.
The violence reached into the highest levels of politics when a presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, was assassinated just days before the first round of voting. Shortly before his death, Villavicencio had denounced a death threat he said he had received from someone who claimed to have ties to Fito.
The gang fighting inside and outside of the prisons have left the Choneros, once considered the country’s most powerful criminal group, fragmented and its leadership weakened, according to think tank InSight Crime. But Fito and his allies still control a large portion of the Guayaquil prison.
Shortly after Lasso proudly announced Fito’s transfer to the maximum-security La Roca prison last month, inmates in Guayaquil climbed to the rooftop and staged a protest. Long after the demonstration ended, a sign still hung from a tower: “We want Fito back.”
Within weeks, he had returned.
Diana Durán contributed to this report.
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