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Gang violence traps Yountville couple in Ecuador

They’ve boated up the Mekong River into Laos’ Golden Triangle and gone gorilla trekking in the Congo. They also crossed the Iron Curtain into east Berlin before the wall came down, but...

Jim and Marianne Lyon happy to be home in Yountville after journey to Galápagos Islands derailed in Guayaquil. | Photo by Kim Beltran

They’ve boated up the Mekong River into Laos’ Golden Triangle and gone gorilla trekking in the Congo. They also crossed the Iron Curtain into east Berlin before the wall came down, but Jim and Marianne Lyon said they’d never run into trouble or felt threatened on any of the trips they’ve taken throughout their lifetimes.

That changed on Jan. 9, one day after the retired teachers arrived in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, en route to the Galápagos Islands.

Having arrived late on Monday, the Yountville couple was unaware that earlier that day Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa had declared a nationwide state of emergency following the prison escape of a high-profile drug lord and subsequent prison riots.

On Tuesday, still unaware that there was trouble brewing, they decided to go exploring, walking along the riverfront, visiting several museums, and taking a gondola ride through the city.

They stopped for lunch at a little restaurant, which Jim described as “basically a little shed” where the kitchen was located, and the tables and chairs were set outside daily and brought in at night.

Near the end of their meal, as they were relaxing and taking in the sights around them, a loud siren began blaring – over and over again.

“We didn’t think too much of it, but everybody scattered,” said Jim.

“People just got up and left their food,” Marianne added.

The couple don’t speak Spanish and were struggling to understand what was happening, they said. But restaurant workers ushered them inside the “shed” where they all remained for a short time.

Jim said he was thinking that perhaps there was some sort of weather emergency taking place until one of the Ecuadorian women in the restaurant told them, “criminals.”

“So now we’re thinking that it’s terrorists, and that gave us a higher level of concern,” said Jim.

Still unaware of what exactly was taking place, the Lyons followed along with the restaurant employees, helping them close up shop. A young waitress managed to communicate that her brother was a taxi driver; he was coming to pick her up and he would take them back to their hotel.

One book they’d read about travel in Ecuador warned visitors to take Uber rather than taxis for safety reasons, Marianne Lyon said.

“So, we’re thinking, oh boy, now we’re going to get into a taxi on top of whatever else is going on,” she said.

The taxi, however, turned out to be a junker car, driven by the waitress’s brother with their parents in the back seat. Marianne and Jim joined them, squeezing in for a very uncomfortable ride back to their hotel.

“But we were thankful. Very thankful for the ride,” the couple said.

Once back at their hotel, the language barrier was still preventing them from getting details about what was happening. Still, as the day wore on, they picked enough snippets up from their one English television channel (CNN International) and Jim’s cell phone to piece the story together.

A wave of violence had swept the South American country following José Adolfo Macias Villamar’s escape from a prison in Guayaquil. Known as “Fito,” Macias Villamar is a notorious drug cartel kingpin who, as of Wednesday, had yet to be captured.

That Tuesday morning when Jim and Marianne were out touring the city, a gang of masked gunmen had stormed a downtown TV station during a live broadcast, holding employees hostage and threatening to set off bombs. Explosions and street violence also rocked other cities across Ecuador, and the news agency Reuters reported at the time that several police officers were killed in Guayaquil. At the same time, more than 100 guards were taken hostage in gang-run prisons.

Tuesday’s violence brought a second declaration from President Noboa, who proclaimed “a state of internal armed conflict,” authorizing military action against what he called “narcoterrorist groups.”

Both the state of emergency and state of armed conflict declarations imposed overnight curfews and suspended people’s right to assembly.

In their seventh-floor hotel room, Jim and Marianne could do little but view the empty streets below and wait for word that the emergency was over and their 10-day trip to the Galápagos Islands would start on Friday as planned.

Not able to go outside, they spent their time reading books, eating meals in the hotel dining room, and visiting the hotel bar.

The hotel staff were kind, professional, and very attentive, said the Lyons. Whether they were desensitized to the threat or instructed not to, the employees did not attempt to discuss the violence that was taking place beyond the doors of the hotel, even though some of them spoke English.

“It’s sad to me because these beautiful people have to live like this,” Marianne Lyon said, “and they are gorgeous; just lovely people.”

The couple got word on Thursday that their dream trip to Galápagos had been canceled, and flights in and out of Ecuador had been restricted. Since they weren’t scheduled to fly back home until Jan. 25, Jim went to work trying to book a new flight.

Meanwhile, back in Yountville, some of the Lyons’ Mulberry Street neighbors and other friends had learned of their predicament and reached out to share the news with the Yountville Sun.

“My next-door neighbor Maureen Grinnell was quite worried about them and kept bringing it up because she was seeing the events on TV,” neighbor Rob Wiley said. “We, too, were quite worried about the Lyons once we heard they were swept up in it. We felt much better once they texted to let us know they were back on USA soil.”

The Rotary Club of Napa announced at its meeting that week that member and past president Jim Lyon and his wife were stranded, and an email chain went out among close Yountville friends apprising each other of updates.

Resident Debbie Alter-Starr reached out to Rep. Mike Thompson’s office as well as Napa County supervisor Anne Cottrell for any help they might be able to offer in helping the Lyons get a flight home. Jim was also in contact with state Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa, as well as the U.S. Consulate in Ecuador.

In the end, it was Jim’s relentless efforts with the airline companies that landed him and his wife on a flight out of Ecuador on Monday, Jan. 15. They arrived back in Yountville the next day, tired and shell-shocked, and in need of some decompression.

They told the Sun this week that they’re sad to have missed out on the Galápagos Islands but they’re happy to be home safe and sound. They’ll wait awhile to decide if they’ll attempt the trip again, they said.

If there’s any advice to be passed on from their experience, Jim said he’d share two things: Check for travel advisories and use your credit card for everything.

“I learned that I could’ve just called my credit card company and they would’ve taken care of getting us a flight and everything,” said Jim. “That’s where I really could have saved a lot of time and probably some money.”