Where is Fito? Ecuador’s notorious drug lord who escaped the prison in which he lived like a king

Where is Fito? Ecuador’s notorious drug lord who escaped the prison in which he lived like a king
  • PublishedApril 24, 2024

Despite being behind bars, Adolfo ‘Fito’ Macias was able to run the brutal Los Choneros drug gang and Ecuador’s authorities were unable to stop him. They also couldn’t prevent his escape.

In his prison cell, drug lord Adolfo ‘Fito’ Macias lived like a king. Then one day, he vanished.

A state of emergency in Ecuador was declared after his escape from prison, and the government battled to regain control of the country’s jails from gangs.

President Daniel Noboa has vowed to eradicate violence and restore order, but three months on his forces have yet to recapture Macias, 44, the leader of the notorious Los Choneros gang.

Fito was serving a 34-year sentence for drug trafficking and murder. His escape in January occurred on the day he was scheduled to be moved from La Regional prison to a maximum security facility.

This wanted poster posted on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024 on X formerly known as Twitter, by Ecuador's Ministry of Interior, shows Jos.. Adolfo Mac..as Villamar, leader of Los Choneros gang. Mac..as was discovered missing on Sunday from a Guayaquil prison cell where he was serving a 34-year sentence for drug trafficking.  Also known by the alias ...Fito,... Mac..as is on the country's most wanted list and a reward is being offered for information that helps find his whereabouts. (Ecuador's Ministry of Interior via AP)
Image:Fito is one of Ecuador’s most wanted criminals. Pic: AP

Despite being behind bars, he was able to continue to direct the activities of Los Choneros. He also enjoyed access to mobile phones and the internet, watched TV and kept pets.

“His prison cell basically resembled a hotel room,” says Annette Idler, a professor of global security at the University of Oxford. “He had access to women who were brought to him,” she adds. “It was a luxury room for him.”

Colourful murals of the gang leader were even daubed across the walls, including one of him flanked by two assault rifles.

Music video glorification

Fito also managed to star in a professionally produced music video, parts of which were filmed inside his prison, exalting the drugs kingpin as “el jefe y patron” – the boss.

There has been no explanation from authorities about how a film crew was able to gain access to one of Ecuador’s most notorious criminals. Meanwhile, El Corrido del Leon – the Lion’s Ballad – has racked up nearly 900,000 views on YouTube.

A general view of the watchtower overlooking the Zonal 8 prison, from where Jose Adolfo Macias alias "Fito" disappeared almost a week ago after at least five inmates escaped, according to police reports, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, January 13, 2024. REUTERS/Henry Romero
Image:The watchtower overlooking the Zonal 8 prison, from where Fito escaped. Pic: Reuters

“It was glorifying him as this good and honest guy – how does that happen?”, says John Murdy, a University of Chicago PhD student who has spent years researching Ecuador’s prisons. “Fito is unique.”

This was only possible, Prof Idler says, because of corruption in the Ecuadorian prison system, with prison guards severely outnumbered and under pressure.

The choice between silver and lead

“It’s something that resembles Pablo Escobar – the choice between silver and lead. Either they receive a bribe or they’re just shot.”

Those same words are emblazoned on the prison wall mural of Fito – ‘plata’ (silver) and ‘plomo’ (lead).

Prison guards faced with overcrowded jails and not enough support are vulnerable to this kind of pressure from the gangs, who can find out where their families live, and often end up on their payroll.

A soldier stands guard over inmates at the Litoral Penitentiary during a press tour organized by the military, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Friday, Feb. 9, 2024.  According to the military, the tour is to demonstrate that control has been regained inside the prison, considered one of the most violent in the country. (AP Photo/Cesar Munoz)
Image:A soldier guards inmates at Litoral Penitentiary. Pic: AP

Unable to fully control their prisons, authorities resorted to sorting new inmates by their gang affiliation.

“In effect the Ecuadorian state is giving prison wings over to gangs, which means they are able to consolidate their power and have a base of operations,” Murdy says. They can then collect weapons like machine guns, machetes and bombs, he adds.

Los Choneros, led by Fito, is one of the gangs authorities hold responsible for a spike in violence that reached new highs last year with the assassination of the presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio.

Members of the Security Forces check an area near the Zonal 8 prison, from where Jose Adolfo Macias alias "Fito" disappeared earlier in the month, amid the ongoing wave of violence around the nation, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, January 15, 2024. REUTERS/Henry Romero
Image:Soldiers carry out a search near the prison following Fito’s escape. Pic: Reuters

When Fito escaped La Regional prison on 7 January – his second jailbreak – the news spread around the world.

Roberto Izurieta, press secretary for the president, said “most likely” there was a leak of information that led to Fito’s escape. He said the gang chief was tipped off “a matter of hours” before he disappeared.

Embarrassment for president

“It was a real egg-on-the-face moment for the new president,” says Murdy. “Somehow Fito learned about this very high level security intervention and was able to escape without a gunshot fired.”

But should it have come as such a shock? After all, he was not being held in a high security prison.

Prof Idler adds: “In a way it was not much of a surprise… because we know Fito had lots of control.”

Three months later, Fito is still at large.

“On the one hand, it’s surprising because Ecuador is working with the US and Colombia, who have good intelligence services – this should help in finding him.”

‘Endemic corruption’

But Prof Idler added that the “endemic corruption” in Ecuador means that it may be difficult to track him down.

“It’s not clear where he actually went,” she says. “Given that these criminal organisations operate across borders it’s also quite likely that he is very well protected through his network, not just inside Ecuador but also in the wider region.”

There was speculation that he might head to Argentina, where he had moved his wife and children. But they were deported back to Ecuador a couple of weeks after Fito’s escape.

Members of the security forces check an area near the Zonal 8 prison, from where Jose Adolfo Macias, also known by the alias "Fito", disappeared earlier in the month, amid the ongoing wave of violence around the nation, in Guayaquil, Ecuador January 15, 2024. REUTERS/Henry Romero
Image:Was Fito tipped off by someone inside Ecuador’s security apparatus? Pic: Reuters

Amid suspicion that he might instead seek to pass through Peru to reach Bolivia, the Peruvian government strengthened security along its border.

Prof Idler adds: “The authorities’ eyes are on him, but it’s definitely plausible that he’s still somewhere in the region hiding.”

It remains to be seen when, or if, Fito will be hunted down. And even if he’s recaptured and put back in prison, what then? Fito has already escaped prison twice, could he do it again?


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