Ecuador’s Attorney General Delivers A Major Blow to Organized Crime and Corruption
By Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo
Ecuador’s Attorney General, Diana Salazar, recently struck at the heart of a massive corruption network that extends through drug gangs, politicians, the prison system, the justice system, and even the media.
In the most significant action taken against organized crime in the country’s history, on December 14th, Salazar and a team of over 900 police and public prosecutors executed 75 different raids across the country, resulting in 29 arrests, including eight judges, the head of the judicial system, and the former head of the prison system and anti-narcotics police force.
According to the charges presented to the court, those involved were responsible for paying off judges to receive favorable rulings for drug dealers as well as politicians, facilitating money laundering of drug money, moving weapons and goods in and out of prisons, and even ordering murders. Due to the magnitude of the case, the Attorney General named it Metastasis.
The Attorney General’s case was backed up by evidence recovered from 15 cell phones that belonged to Leandro Norero, a notorious gang leader killed in a prison riot in October 2022.
Assumed to be 34 years old at the time of his death, Norero financed the operations of multiple gangs before he was eventually apprehended in May of 2022. Before his arrest, Norero had faked his death to escape an arrest warrant in Peru.
At the time of his murder, Norero was believed to be negotiating a peace agreement with rival gangs, with the likely goal of forming a cartel. He is believed to have been killed by a rival gang, and his recovered cell phones represented a treasure trove of incriminating evidence that would shake the country to its core.
As I’ve written about elsewhere, drug gangs have increased their violent influence and control over Ecuador’s weak institutions over the past two years, nowhere more so than in the country’s judiciary.
Despite the hard work of the police, individuals involved with the drug trade have frequently made a mockery of the judicial system by obtaining inexplicably favorable rulings, including habeas corpus, early release, release due to procedural failures, as well as desirable prison transfers. Despite seeing these rulings on a daily basis, until now, Ecuadorians were unaware of how these favors were paid for, but thanks to Norero’s phones, the entire system was exposed.
Norero and his gangs would start by courting judges with cash, apartments, and cars. They referred to these gifts as “suicides” because once the judges accepted these gifts, their future was in the hands of the gangs. These rewards were extended not only to judges but also to public prosecutors as well as the police. In one bizarre scenario, Norero paid to repair the police cruisers required at the request of a local force who promised to ensure his house was always protected.
Norero was primarily focused on guaranteeing freedom for himself, his associates, as well as his family members, all of whom had come under pressure after the now-deceased former Presidential candidate and anti-corruption crusader Fernando Villavicencio published a photo of corrupt actors, gang operators, and politicians socializing together in a pool in Miami.
Norero’s texts even enter the political arena: in addition to identifying the politician who did the gang’s bidding in the national assembly, Norero suggests in his chat that he paid the bribe to release former vice-president Jorge Glas from jail. Soon after the raids, the already convicted Glas, who is awaiting trial for even more corruption charges stemming from his time in office, sought refuge in the Mexican Embassy and is currently requesting political asylum.
We also find in the chat logs information about how Norero was able to launder his money; specifically, Norero, his associates, and his family members would use government contracts to convert their drug proceeds into legitimate earnings. We learn, for example, that Norero was working with Agustín Intriago, the mayor of the port city of Manta, who was assassinated in broad daylight in July of 2023.
Norero not only associated with actors from the criminal underground but also with a journalist, specifically Andersson Boscán of the digital outlet La Posta. Known to flaunt the conventions of journalism to generate clicks and re-tweets, La Posta broke numerous scandals over the years but seemed to choose targets selectively.
In their chats together, Boscán attempts to retrieve information from Norero about corruption before the two assume a profoundly familiar and affectionate tone. Boscán eventually offers legal advice to Norero, and the two discuss writing a book together.
Initially, Boscán denied that the conversations were real before defending himself as a journalist working a source, before finally admitting he crossed an ethical line. La Posta, for its part, continues to portray itself as the victim of a conspiracy theory earned as a result of its hard-hitting journalism.
Part of what caused Boscan’s change of heart was the revelations that Norero and his associates planned and admitted to murders over their preferred messaging app, Threema. They even discussed killing journalists from different media outlets and talked about “making it look like a robbery.”
The high-profile individuals arrested include the Head of the Judiciary, William Terán, as well as the former head of the prison system and anti-narcotics unit, Pablo Ramírez. Both were individuals with significant public profiles whose arrests filled in many gaps as to how Norero and his gang were able to receive favorable sentences from judges and bring high-caliber weapons into the prison systems. Videos circulated of Teran’s house full of luxuries that would be difficult to acquire with a public servant’s salary. Also found on his property was $25,000 in 100-dollar bills.
Despite what appears to be a massive blow against a major criminal organization dedicated to perverting the political and justice systems, not everyone was happy. Before the raids, former President Rafael Correa (2007–2017) warned via X that a major operation was underway, possibly aiding seven individuals in escaping detention and possibly committing the crime of obstructing justice.
Correa has reason to be nervous: many of the political associations derived from the chats point back to members of his party and his time in government. With public sentiment firmly in the Attorney General’s corner, Correa and his party will likely find themselves increasingly isolated.
Despite having nothing to do with the raids, given that the Attorney General operates independently, new President Daniel Noboa didn’t waste time taking credit for the AG’s work by claiming that the effort was part of his larger security strategy, “Plan Pheonix.”
While it is unlikely that Noboa had much to do with the operation, given that the phones were recovered over a year before he took office, it is clear that the operation enjoyed the support of the United States.
A week before the raid, US Ambassador to Ecuador Michael Fitzpatrick gave a speech in which he alluded to a vast network of corruption that laundered money through soccer teams and even used media outlets to distract public attention from criminal investigations. During Ambassador Fitzpatrick’s four-year tenure, the US government has publicly canceled the visas of individuals accused of corruption, pursued corruption cases against Ecuadorians in the United States, and openly supported the work of Attorney General Salazar.
To understand the implications of this case for the justice system, I consulted Ecuadorian lawyer Arturo Moscoso. According to Moscoso, the challenge the AG now faces is navigating a far-reaching and complex case through the same justice system she is accusing of being corrupt.
According to Moscoso, it’s unclear whether the criminal organization operated by the now-deceased Norero continues to exercise control within the justice system and whether or not that influence will be enough to derail the cases. At the time of writing (12/27), the Attorney General presented charges against an additional eight people who work in the judiciary. The judge who presided over the hearing is also under investigation.
What is certain is that Ecuadorians are still to receive salacious revelations. In a series of interviews, the AG has made reference to chats and videos that have yet to be released. When they are released, they will have far-reaching consequences for Ecuador’s political class. What’s more, there appears to be more information to come regarding the murder of Ecuadorian Presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio. Despite understanding more about how influenced the justice system, we’ve still yet to learn everything about how his organization operated, nor how drug money was laundered through football clubs, as Ambassador Fitzpatrick alluded to.
For now, after years of bad news and worsening conditions, Ecuadorians feel that, for once, justice is close to being served.