Rampant Violence Erupts Between Rival Gangs
Violence erupted in prisons across Ecuador over the past week between rival gangs linked to international drug traffickers, resulting in gruesome riots and clashes that left dozens dead. The chaos has gripped the Andean nation and shed light on the expanding power of prison gangs.
On Tuesday, clashes broke out between the Los Lobos and R7 gangs at a prison complex in Latacunga, south of the capital Quito. Members of Los Lobos set off explosives and attacked rivals with knives and guns. The riot left at least 16 inmates dead and several more injured before police and the military regained control.
However, the Latacunga incident sparked a wave of similar riots and hostage standoffs at prisons in Guayaquil, Cuenca and two other cities. Overall, more than 400 guards, police officers and prison personnel have been taken hostage by inmates.
As of Sunday, Ecuadorian authorities announced that all hostages across the seven prison facilities had been freed after massive police and military operations. But the death toll has risen to over 80 inmates killed during clashes between gang members.
Government Struggles To Contain Prison Crisis
The ongoing crisis has highlighted that Ecuador’s prison system has spiraled out of control under President Guillermo Lasso’s watch.
When President Lasso took office in 2021, he pledged to bring “peace” and “tranquility” by cracking down on drug gangs inside state penitentiaries. However, corruption and understaffing have allowed violence to fester unchecked.
The country’s prisons were built for about 30,000 inmates in total but are now bursting with some 35,000 prisoners, a nearly 20 percent overcapacity. Violence has surged dramatically, with at least 400 prisoners killed behind bars last year alone.
Lasso declared a 60-day state of emergency in Ecuador’s prison system this week, which allows the government to restrict rights and deploy police and soldiers inside penitentiaries.
The overwhelming show of force has enabled authorities to re-establish control, at least for now. All hostages have been released, and inmates no longer roam freely attacking rivals.
But experts warn that the government cannot rely solely on heavy-handed security tactics without addressing the root causes that allowed violence to spiral out of control.
Table showing surge in inmate deaths behind bars in recent years. Data from human rights groups.
Gangs Carve Up Lucrative Drug Trade
At the heart of the crisis is the unchecked rise of powerful gangs profiting from multi-million dollar drug-trafficking routes from Colombia and Peru to the United States and Europe.
Well-armed groups like Los Lobos, Los Choneros and Los Tiguerones have thousands of foot soldiers and are flush with cash from smuggling operations. They effectively run many prisons, openly selling drugs and weapons while authorities turn a blind eye.
Battling for control of these lucrative trafficking routes has fueled much of the bloodshed. The fighting is likely to continue unless the government tackles the gangs’ financial lifelines.
Most cocaine leaves Colombia and passes through Ecuador on its way to Mexico and the U.S. An estimated 70% of drugs heading to Europe also transit through the country. This drug trade is worth billions annually.
Relatives Fear Ongoing Violence
In recent days, hundreds of anxious family members have crowded outside prisons seeking information about incarcerated loved ones. Some weep openly while fearing the worst.
Celia Pacheco’s son Jefferson has been imprisoned for a nonviolent crime for the past year. She has not heard from him since riots erupted at his facility and has pleaded unsuccessfully for updates from tight-lipped authorities.
“I feel desperate, sad, anguished not knowing what’s happening inside,” she told Reuters. “Maybe my son is still alive, maybe he is wounded.”
With tensions still simmering after the initial riots, relatives say they dread further violence erupting. And Ecuador’s overcrowded, gang-run prisons continue to be powder kegs that could explode again at any moment.
President Lasso has pledged to address the deep flaws that led to the crisis. But instability still reigns and a return to normalcy remains elusive for inmates and their families.
What Comes Next?
In the short term, police and military units are expected to maintain a heavy presence inside prisons to prevent immediate reprisal attacks between gangs. Troop deployments may last for months.
Authorities also plan to transfer inmates accused of terrorism links to a maximum-security facility, away from opposing gangs they have been fighting.
However, long-term stability hinges on reforms aimed at staggering overcrowding and reducing gang influence by cutting off drug profits. Dozens of inmates escaped during recent riots amid the chaos, so recapturing these fugitives also remains a priority.
Talks are underway for increased funding to expand infrastructure and hire more guards. But with state resources already stretched thin, financing such efforts represents an uphill climb.
Nonetheless, President Lasso has staked his presidency on fixing Ecuador’s prisons. With decaying conditions allowing violence to fester, the reform push has taken on greater urgency to prevent another round of deadly riots from erupting.
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