Two uniformed agents cower behind a wall, gun at the ready, fearfully eying a car parked outside their police station after nightfall in the violence-stricken Ecuadoran port city of Guayaquil.
Any car near a police station in these parts is viewed with suspicion after a recent spate of gun and explosives attacks blamed on a gruesome gang war that has killed dozens of officers since last year.
Numerous attacks this week in the city of 2.8 million people have killed five police officers and a civilian and injured at least 17 members of the security forces.
Officials say the attacks were a response by organized crime to an ongoing mass transfer of inmates from the infamous Guayas 1 prison in Guayaquil to other jails controlled by different gangs.
On Friday, special police units oversaw the transfer of gang leaders even as journalists and concerned family members who were gathered outside could hear loud detonations coming from the jail.
Even police live in fear in Guayaquil where gangs outgun law enforcement and everything from the port to the prisons are under criminal control.
So far this year, the commercial heart of Ecuador has seen 1,200 homicides — 60% more than in 2021 according to official data.
"I've seen bombs explode," said a Guayaquil gas station attendant who did not want to be named for fear of retribution.
"That's the danger right now. You have to watch out for any motorcyclist: If they leave something behind or throw something ... you have to watch out," he told AFP.
Ecuador, once a relatively peaceful neighbor of major cocaine producers Colombia and Peru, has seen a wave of violent crime that authorities blame on turf battles between rival gangs with ties to Mexican cartels.
President Guillermo Lasso responded to this week's rash of attacks by declaring a state of emergency and nighttime curfew in the Guayas and Esmeraldas provinces, which was extended Friday to include Santa Domingo de los Tsachilas.
He also ordered the deployment of troops to the three provinces, home to a third of Ecuador's 18 million inhabitants.
The streets of Guayaquil, worst hit by the violence, are largely empty at night, and police are on high alert.
They patrol in vans with the lights turned off or barricade themselves at their command posts wearing bulletproof vests.
Streets where politicians' homes are located are fenced off to any traffic and gas station attendants man their posts in fear after a number were targeted in the most recent fear-mongering campaign.
It has become an occupation of "life or death," said one attendant, 21, who did not want to be named and said he feared being shot dead by "merciless" criminals.
Lasso has vowed his government will "not surrender to narco-terrorists."
Ecuador has gone from being a drug transit route in recent years to an important distribution center.
The United States and Europe are the main destinations for drugs from Latin America.
The homicide rate in Ecuador nearly doubled in 2021 to 14 per 100,000 inhabitants and reached 18 per 100,000 between January and October this year, according to official data.
Hundreds of inmates have also died, many beheaded or burned as an extension of the gang war is waged behind bars.