QUITO — Hate your neighbor? Want to get even with your spouse's lover? Killers for hire in Ecuador can solve your problems for as little as 400 dollars -- and police fear they are responsible for a recent spike in murders.
Internet-based hitmen for hire are not new in Latin America: past cases include Mexican police investigating cyber ads presumably set up by drug cartels seeking killers, and a webpage allegedly set up by Colombian hitmen offerered their services in Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, Peru and even Spain.
While some believe these ads are just part of a scams -- the alleged hitmen take money from the customer, then they extort the victim -- Ecuadoran police are taking the ads seriously.
"Did your boss fire you and you want revenge? Do people refuse to pay money they owe and laugh at you?" read the ad of a hitman offering his services in the Guayaquil area.
The advertiser promises "discretion... 100 percent efficiency, and we deliver pictures to the client" to confirm that the job was done.
Between January and April at least 212 people were killed in the port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador's most populous city. Hitmen were responsible for at least 11 percent of those cases, Guayaquil public prosecutor Antonio Gagliardo told AFP.
A third of all the country's crimes are committed in the province of Guayas, where Guayaquil is located, and murder has become "a common way of resolving problems of debt, enmity, hatred, love, and struggles over land ownership," Gagliardo said.
In Guayas province in 2009 there were 321 homicides and 1,032 assassinations, a toll that deputy Interior Minister Edwin Jarrin called "alarming."
Victims include a legislator's wife and a cousin of the head of the National Transportation Council, both shot by unknown gunmen.
Advertised prices range from 400 to 3,000 dollars, depending on whether the victim "has a lot of money, is an authority or is a regular person," Gagliardo said.
The government recently formed a police task force to crack down on the hitmen, but Gagliardo admits that Ecuador lacks the technological savvy to track the killers down in cyberspace.
Gagliardo said he will send legislation to Congress proposing an increase in murder sentences from the current 12 to 24 years to 25 to 35 years in prison.
He also proposed that middlemen that arrange murders for hire be punished with 15 years prison.
Hitmen have been operating in Ecuador for the past 15 years, in part a spillover effect from drug violence neighboring Colombia, but their activities have recently risen to "alarming levels," Gagliardo said.
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