Maria could not foresee that her life was about to change because of a phone call.

A 48-year-old resident of Guayaquil, a port city in Ecuador, she had already seen her borough turned upside down by the presence of organised crime: Businesses had closed, neighbours had moved away and criminal gangs started fighting each other in the streets.

But she never expected to feel the effects of the crime directly. That changed when her phone rang a few months ago.

“A man told me that if I didn’t pay him $500 in a few hours, he would kidnap my children,” Maria, who asked to use a pseudonym, told Al Jazeera.

She ultimately paid the fee. Still, fearing further threats, she sent her children to live with relatives in another part of the country. “I cried and didn’t eat for almost three weeks, but I had no other choice,” Maria said.

Experiences like hers have grown increasingly common. Since 2018, Ecuador has struggled with violence as organised crime spreads and its economy falters.