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At least 44 dead in Ecuador prison riot, officials say

A helicopter flies over the Bella Vista prison in Ecuador's Santo Domingo, where a deadly riot broke out on May 9. (Dolores Ochoa/AP)

At least 44 people were killed and more than 100 remain unaccounted for after a brutal prison riot in northwest Ecuador raged for hours on Monday, officials there said.

Ecuador’s national police service said Monday afternoon that it had regained control of the Bella Vista prison in Santo Domingo, the country’s fourth-largest city.

The inmates fought each other using knives and other improvised weapons, according to Interior Minister Patricio Carillo, who spoke to reporters. He said that the unrest was sparked by clashes between two rival gangs — Los Lobos and R7 — after a key leader of the latter group was transferred to Bella Vista following a court order.

“This is an unfortunate result of gang violence,” Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso said on Twitter Monday.

Last month, Lasso declared a state of emergency in three provinces to curb the rising number of gang-related slayings. The attacks have also included a rash of gruesome prison riots, with more than 300 people killed in similar unrest at Ecuadorian jails last year alone.

Ecuador prison melee flares for second time in weeks; at least 68 dead

Ecuador is a key transit point for the movement of cocaine from South America to the United States, Europe and Asia — and a frequent battleground for rival gangs fighting to control these routes. The country’s notoriously overcrowded and under-resourced prisons are now ensnared in the escalating turf wars between gangs linked to international drug cartels.

In April, at least 20 people were killed, and some mutilated, during a riot in El Turi prison, near the city of Cuenca. Last year, more than 100 people were killed in one of the deadliest prison riots in Ecuador’s history.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has accused Ecuador of failing to provide safe conditions in its prisons, which the commission found to be rife with violence and corruption.

At least 316 people died while incarcerated in Ecuador in 2021, according to a report in March released by the commission, an arm of the Organization of American States focused on human rights in the Western Hemisphere.

The majority of those killed were young and accused of minor crimes, and some were waiting to be released, the report found. Ecuador’s Ombudsman’s Office reported more than 103 inmates were killed in 2020, with the rate rising yearly since 2018.

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

The report found that prisons held around 36,000 people and were operating at over 21 percent capacity — though it said the number was probably higher, citing discrepancies in officially reported capacities. Human rights groups have called on Ecuador to improve medical and judicial services for inmates and to increase prison security and personnel.

The government launched a prison reform program in 2019 but cut its budget by more than 70 percent the following year, according to the Ecuadoran news site Primicias.