The US government announced on Wednesday the imposition of sanctions against a “notorious” drug-trafficking gang in Ecuador, Los Zoneros, and personally its leader and the number 1 public danger in the Latin American country, Jose Adolfo Masias, also known as “Fito”, who escaped from a maximum security prison on January 7, sparking a crisis.

The sanctions are imposed following “a sharp increase in violence in Ecuador attributed to the actions of Los Tzoneros and other drug trafficking gangs in the country,” the US Treasury Department said in a press release.

The escape of “Fito” was followed by the kidnapping of more than 200 police officers and members of prison security staff, explosions, murders, as well as the invasion of masked gunmen in a television studio during a live broadcast.

The unprecedented wave of violence prompted Ecuador’s president Daniel Noboa to declare a state of emergency, initially for 60 days.

“Drug-trafficking gangs like Los Tzoneros, many of which have ties to powerful drug cartels in Mexico, threaten the lives and livelihoods of communities in Ecuador and throughout the region,” commented the Undersecretary of Finance in charge of counter-terrorism and financial intelligence gathering Brian Nelson, according to the press release.

The Los Tzoneros gang is considered to be among the most bloodthirsty in Ecuador, the US Department of the Treasury points out, clarifying that “it has been involved in drug trafficking in Ecuador since the 1990s and is one of the main drivers of the escalation of violence affecting Ecuador since 2020 ».

José Adolfo Masias is its “founding member” and its “sole leader” as of 2020. He was sentenced in 2011 to serve 34 years in prison, but in prison he had “access to cell phones and the Internet, which allowed him to continue to directs the activities of Los Tsoneros,” the statement added.

Two days after his escape, gunmen stormed the set of a public television station on January 9.

A prosecutor specializing in organized crime cases was murdered in broad daylight on 17 January.

Members of 22 gangs operating in the country are now labeled “terrorists” and legitimate soldiers by the authorities, who have deployed the armed forces inside the country.

The U.S. sanctions include freezing any assets of the gang or its members in the U.S., as well as prohibiting any Americans from doing business with them.