Prison violence in Ecuador leaves at least 68 dead and dozens injured

At least 68 prisoners were killed and more than two dozen injured in the nightly violence at Ecuador’s Litoral Penitentiary prison, the government said on Saturday, in what officials characterized as fights between rival gangs.

The penitentiary, located in the southern city of Guayaquil, is the same prison where 119 inmates were murdered in late September in the worst incident of prison violence in the country’s history.

The government has blamed disputes between drug gangs over control of prisons for the violence.

Dozens of people gathered outside the prison waiting for news of their loved ones, of whom many said they had not heard from since Friday afternoon.

Cristina Monserrat, 58, has yet to hear from her younger brother, who has been in prison for a year.

Gilboa Prison. What went wrong? (credit: FLASH90)

“What is happening inside is reprehensible, people are killing themselves and the saddest thing is that they have no conscience,” said Monserrat. “My brother is alive, my heart tells me.”

President Guillermo Lasso, Monserrat added, must do more to help the poor. Ecuador’s prison system has come under heavy scrutiny in recent years due to overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and organized crime.

Lasso declared a 60-day state of emergency in the prison system in September, freeing up government funds and allowing military assistance to control prisons.

On Saturday, the president asked the constitutional court to allow the military to enter prisons, rather than providing only external security.

Wave of disturbances

The latest unrest was sparked by a power vacuum following the release of a gang leader, Guayas province governor Pablo Arosemena said at a press conference the same day.

“The context of this situation is that there was no leader of the gang that has this ward because a few days ago that prisoner was released,” said Arosemena. “Other cell blocks with other groups wanted to control them, enter and have a total massacre.”

Videos on social media allegedly posted by detainees overnight showed them asking for help to stop the violence as gunshots and explosions rang out in the background. Reuters could not independently verify the origin of the videos.

There has been a wave of riots in the South American country’s prisons, which house some 39,000 detainees, since the December 2020 murder of ‘Rasquina’, the leader of the Los Choneros gang, months after his release.

His death left a power vacuum, authorities said at the time, as lesser-known gangs tried to take control of the country’s prisons. Gang rivalries are connected to competition for drug trafficking alliances with international cartels, former officials said.

Authorities said a February incident that killed 79 detainees was a response to Rasquina’s death. Another 22 people were killed in a riot in July.

“We are fighting against drug trafficking, against criminal gangs that fight each other for territory inside and outside the prisons to distribute drugs,” said Governor Arosemena.

Some of those killed in the September violence at the Litoral Penitentiary were beheaded or burned, the attorney general’s office said, and dozens were injured.

A total of 11 people were found hanging in the penitentiary in October, which authorities say could have been suicides.

“I don’t know anything, we are asking for answers,” said Estefanía, who refused to give her last name, and said that her husband is in prison for a robbery. “I don’t know if he’s dead or alive.”

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