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Ecuador’s prison riot: Drug cartels, overcrowded cells and a bloodbath

Relatives of inmates wait outside a morgue Sept. 30, 2021, for identification of the dead after a riot broke out at the Penitenciaria del Litoral prison in Guayaquil, Ecuador. (Vicente Gaibor Del Pino/Reuters)

The corpses were stacked on top of one another in the prison courtyard, some of them burned and dismembered.

Gruesome images shared on social media showed police surveying the carnage across the bloodstained floors of Ecuador’s largest prison, an overcrowded fortress in Guayaquil housing about 9,000 people. But behind the piled-up bodies, beside a mural of an eagle, a message on the courtyard wall made clear who was in charge: “Los Choneros.”

A growing power struggle between rival gangs led this week to Ecuador’s worst prison riot in history, a bloodbath that left 116 inmates dead and 78 injured. At least five people were beheaded and an “extensive” number mutilated, a government official said.

Inmates crawled through holes between wards, using smuggled Glocks, knives and machetes in their fight for control of the prison. Sounds of gunshots and explosions rent the air as inmates climbed onto the prison’s rooftops.

The violence prompted Ecuador’s president to declare a state of emergency across the South American country’s penitentiary system, the second time in recent months. The prisons have become battlegrounds for criminal gangs increasingly linked to Mexican drug cartels.

More than 100 killed in Ecuadoran prison riot as gangs fight for control

“It’s unfortunate that prisons are being converted into territories of power struggles for criminal gangs,” Ecuadoran President Guillermo Lasso said at a news conference Wednesday night. “The Ecuadoran state needs to act.”

The killings underscore Ecuador’s growing role in the international drug trade, current and former government officials said. While the country doesn’t have a large coca-growing industry, it is located between the world’s two biggest producers of cocaine — Peru and Colombia. Coca is the base ingredient in cocaine.

As Colombia has clamped down on cocaine trafficking in the past two decades, with significant funding and military resources from the United States, Mexican cartels have sought out key partners just across the Colombian border, in Ecuador, said Mario Pazmiño, a security consultant and former head of Ecuador’s military intelligence.

After U.S. forces left the Manta military base along Ecuador’s Pacific coast in 2009, the border with Colombia was left unmonitored, according to a high-ranking Ecuadoran official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the subject freely.

The Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels have taken advantage of Ecuador’s Pacific ports and relied on local gangs to provide security for smuggling routes in exchange for money, officials said. Ecuador’s highly developed road infrastructure has allowed these cartels to move cocaine from the Colombian border to the country’s main port, in Guayaquil, in a matter of six hours.

With the backing of the Sinaloa cartel, the Ecuadoran criminal group Los Choneros gained control of key drug-trafficking routes and at one point grew to claim more than 10,000 members, according to the Ecuadoran government official.

But late last year, after a Los Choneros leader was killed, the group splintered into rival organizations — gangs that are vying for control of the country’s prisons.

In February, brawls in three prisons on the same day left 79 inmates dead, in what were then the worst prison riots in the country’s history. In July, similar fights led to the deaths of 22 inmates and prompted Ecuador’s president to declare a state of emergency in the prison system.

The death toll in the country’s prisons this year — at least 237 — is more than double the total in all of 2020, violence that has been growing steadily since 2018, according to the Ecuadoran Ombudsman’s Office.

Notoriously overcrowded prisons and turf wars among drug cartels have led to bloody prison riots over the past few decades in Latin America, which has some of the highest incarceration rates in the world.

Hundreds of people have been killed in prison riots in recent years in Brazil, which has the third-largest prison population. Its prison population has nearly doubled in the past decade, from 450,000 to more than 800,000, and its incarcerated gang leaders use prisons as headquarters in their battle for control of lucrative drug routes.

Gang members behead rivals while guards look on: Inside Brazil’s deadly prison riots

The story in Ecuador is similar: Overcrowded prisons and gang wars have caused an explosion of violence in its penitentiary system, former Ecuadoran officials said.

The prison system, with a capacity to manage less than 30,000 people, houses 39,000 inmates. Though the government launched a program in 2019 to boost infrastructure and technology in the prisons, it cut the project’s budget the following year by more than 70 percent, according to Ecuadoran news site Primicias.

Ledy Zúñiga Rocha, a former justice minister and former president of Ecuador’s National Rehabilitation Council, attributed the problems in the prison system partly to the decision to dissolve the Justice Ministry about three years ago, splitting it into two offices. The move “debilitated” efforts to reform the prisons, Zúñiga said.

“A prison is a mirror for how the country treats its society,” she said. “Now, the prisons are just turning into human storage units, without any rehabilitation.”

The senior government official who asked to remain anonymous said corruption is rampant among prison staff. Family members of inmates, many of whom are also linked to the drug trade, often smuggle in weapons, cellphones, SIM cards and cash, in exchange for a hefty profit. An item worth $500 outside the prison is worth up to $4,000 inside, the official said.

So far this year, more than 50 prison guard staffers have been detained for “flagrancy,” the official said, many accused of helping criminal groups smuggle in items.

As the death toll from this week’s riot continued to mount on Wednesday and Thursday, relatives of inmates gathered outside the prison morgue, waiting for officials to release the list of the dead. Women dropped to their knees in tears, shouting, “We want to know the names!” Others watched in horror as videos circulated on social media showing beheaded and mutilated inmates.

One woman has spent the past two days searching hospitals and standing outside the prison, begging authorities for information about her nephew, an inmate in the prison ward where most of the violence occurred. The woman, Janeth, asked to be identified only by her first name, fearing retribution from Guayaquil’s gangs.

Janeth hasn’t heard from her nephew since the day before the riot broke out. Over the phone, the 21-year-old told her that the prison’s gangs were preparing for a fight.

“It’s terrible,” she said. “No one is safe in there.”

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