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The gang and cartel violence that Ecuador's citizens live with

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ecuador was one of the most peaceful countries in South America until international drug traffickers moved in. Together with local gangs, the cartels have turned Ecuador into a hub for transporting cocaine to Europe and the U.S. Violent gangs now control many cities. NPR's Carrie Kahn takes us to one of them ahead of this weekend's elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN BLARING)

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: That's the school siren. Recess is now over, and students line up in the school patio here in Duran, a tough town across the river from Ecuador's large Pacific port city, Guayaquil.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Arms and hands up," shouts an instructor, taking the students through morning stretches.

The school, which NPR is not identifying for safety reasons, is the only refuge many kids have in this working-class city of 300,000, says teacher Maria. NPR is not using her full name either. She fears retribution from gangs.

MARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "This is like living in a war zone," she says. "Violence is out of control, and we're terrified," she adds.

More than 220 killings have happened so far this year in Duran - many bodies left on the street by the school. One teen told her he watched his mom almost get shot, but the assailant's gun jammed. Another parent just told her the family was going into hiding after they received a threatening letter.

UNIDENTIFIED PARENT: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It was delivered with two bullets. The police do nothing," she says.

UNIDENTIFIED PARENT: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Look, they can't even protect the mayor. How are they supposed to protect us?" she asks.

On his first day in office, Duran's mayor was nearly assassinated. He changes where he sleeps every night, as well as his phone number. The previous mayor was just released by kidnappers last weekend, and two city officials have been killed in the last two months.

Billy Navarette, a local human rights advocate, says Duran is in the hands of the gangs.

BILLY NAVARRETE: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "First off," he says, "because the government does nothing to stop them."

Then there's Duran's favorable geography. The city sits on the banks of a confluence of rivers around one of Ecuador's busiest ports. Large warehouses storing merchandise to ship out are located here. Few are inspected, he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The Aviles family sits outside a Duran church as a man recites the rosary over a loudspeaker. Angelica Aviles says she just sent her son to live with a relative in another city. She was afraid he would be recruited into a gang.

ANGELICA AVILES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "While we keep working, they just steal," she says, talking about the local gangs who extort businesses.

Avila says she's not interested in this weekend's upcoming presidential election. She hasn't heard either candidate explain well how they'll combat Ecuador's crime. The race pits a young leftist lawmaker against an heir to the country's richest banana exporter.

(SOUNDBITES OF BASKETBALLS BOUNCING)

KAHN: Back at the Duran school, where kids are playing basketball, teacher Maria says she's not thrilled with the presidential choices either.

MARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: And she says her biggest fear now is that everyone is just getting too used to living with the violence and the fear.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Duran, Ecuador. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.