Ecuador seeks to regain control of prisons after hostages freed

Ecuador seeks to regain control of prisons after hostages freed
Ecuador seeks to regain control of prisons after hostages freed

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - National Police officers stand guard outside the Turi prison as prison officials that were being held hostage by inmates are being released, in Cuenca, Ecuador, late on January 13, 2024. — AFP pic

QUITO, Jan 14 — Ecuador’s security forces worked today to regain control of prisons that had fallen into the hands of gang members, after securing the release of nearly 180 officials held hostage inside the jails.

The country’s simmering security crisis erupted last week as the government and powerful narco gangs declared all-out war on each other, after the prison escape of a dangerous drug lord.

Inmates rioted in jails where gangs wield outsize control, taking prison guards and administrative workers hostage, while on the streets a wave of violence has left 19 people dead.

Unverified images on social media of looting, brutal murders and other attacks have struck terror into the population.

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Today the army shared videos of prison walls being blown up, and declared “total control” of a prison in the city of Cuenca where 61 employees had been held hostage, according to the mayor.

They also shared images of hundreds of inmates, shirtless and barefoot, lying on the ground during the operation.

Yesterday the government first announced the release of 42 hostages, before the remaining 136 were set free, from prisons across seven provinces.

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President Daniel Noboa celebrated the releases in a post on X, the former Twitter.

“Congratulations to the patriotic, professional and courageous work of the armed forces, national police and the SNAI (...) for achieving the release of the prison guards and administrative staff held in the detention centers of Azuay, Canar, Esmeraldas, Cotopaxi, Tungurahua, El Oro and Loja,” he wrote.

Images broadcast by the police showed the guards, many in tears, exhausted and supported by their colleagues shortly after their release.

“We are free ... Thank God we all got out safely,” a prison employee said in a video posted on social media, waving the Ecuadoran flag and standing in front of one prison in southern Cotopaxi province.

State of emergency

Once a bastion of peace situated between major cocaine producers, Ecuador has been plunged into crisis after years of expansion by the transnational cartels that use its ports to ship the drug to the United States and Europe.

The latest crisis was triggered by the escape from Guayaquil prison of one of the country’s most powerful narcotics gang bosses, Jose Adolfo Macias, known by the alias “Fito”, who headed the country’s main gang “Los Choneros”.

The government declared a state of emergency and curfew, infuriating gangsters who declared “war” against civilians and security forces.

Noboa in turn said the country was “in a state of war” against 22 gangs.

He deployed over 22,000 security forces to the streets, who have frisked and stripped down young men in search of the tattoos identifying them as a member of one of the gangs.

Authorities have reported more than 1,100 arrests, eight “terrorists” killed and 27 escaped prisoners recaptured in the operation.

‘We are going to win’

Noboa has vowed not to bow before the violence, giving orders to “neutralize” the criminal groups responsible.

“I believe we are going to win and I will not stop fighting until we do,” he told the BBC on Friday.

Narco gangs often use prisons as criminal offices, from where they manage drug trafficking, order assassinations, administer the proceeds of crime and fight to the death with rivals for power.

It is in the prisons that much of the gang wars are fought, with brutal clashes between inmates leaving more than 460 dead, many beheaded or burned alive, since February 2021.

Ecuador’s murder rate quadrupled between 2018 and 2022, as the criminal gangs found a foothold in the country.

Last year was the worst yet, with 7,800 murders and a record 220 tons of drugs seized.

Noboa has announced he plans to build two “super maximum” security prisons with a capacity for more than 3,000 people, with proposals for future “prison ships” also on the table. — AFP

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