The situation in Ecuador’s prisons is critical. It has been for at least two years, but this Tuesday the level of internal violence got out of control. At least 62 inmates died and eight were injured in a series of simultaneous riots in three prisons in the country. President Lenín Moreno assured that behind the confrontations between inmates there are “criminal organizations”.
The director of the Penitentiary System, Edmundo Moncayo, attributed the escalation of violence to a power struggle between two gangs, exacerbated after the murder of one of their leaders after regaining his freedom. “There is another criminal organization that joins forces to take the leadership left by a citizen who was killed in December. We expected immediate action, but it has been delayed, and it is what has occurred today. Two groups trying to find a criminal leadership within the detention centers, ”Moncayo said at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
The three prisons in which the riots have occurred comprise 70% of the country’s prison population, Moncayo said, with 38,000 inmates belonging to this type of organization inside the prisons. According to his report, all the deceased were incarcerated: 33 in the Turi prison, in Cuenca; 8 in Latacunga, in Cotopaxi; and the other 21, in Guayaquil. During question time, Moncayo corrected his initial figure of 67 deaths and reduced it to 62.
The government has sent police reinforcements “to regain control in the prisons of Guayaquil, Cuenca and Latacunga,” said President Lenín Moreno at noon. At nine in the morning the first alarms had gone off. Seven hours later, only the Guayaquil prison, one of the largest, had been pacified. The Government has not confirmed whether the other two prisons are still under the control of the detainees.
The Prosecutor’s Office confirmed the removal of eight bodies from the Latacunga prison, in the province of Cotopaxi, where the former vice president of Rafael Correa, Jorge Glas, is serving in prison for the Odebrecht case. The director of the prison system later confirmed that there were injured police officers, but that the prison officials had managed to get out on time. The Minister of Government, Patricio Carrillo, indicated that among the mutineers in that center there were “high risk” inmates.
The Unified Command Post, made up of police and military personnel, was then summoned to regain control of the prisons. As a preliminary explanation, the National Service for Comprehensive Attention to Deprived of Liberty, SNAI, which is the governing body of prisons, pointed out an inspection carried out the night before as the trigger for the riots. “A search was carried out in the Guayas Center for the Deprivation of Liberty No. 4 -the one in Guayaquil-, so it is presumed that these events are a sign of resistance and rejection by the inmates in the face of control actions”, communicated through social networks.
The director of the penitentiary system later confirmed this hypothesis, indicating that two firearms were seized during the inspection. “They were to victimize [asesinar] to one of the leaders of the criminal organizations in downtown Guayaquil, ”he said. The simultaneous riots started, according to Moncayo, because the other rival gang, which is in the Latacunga maximum security prison, anticipated and ordered a violent reaction to “assassinate” prisoners in the other two prisons.
It is not the first time that the authorities have attributed the riots between inmates to the wars of criminal gangs. In the last two years, the Government decreed two states of exception to regain control within the prisons. In May 2019, three riots in the span of a month and a half left 10 inmates dead and stark images of cremated bodies and one headless. The emergency declaration was extended 90 days. Just one year later, in August 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, another outbreak of violence led to a new state of exception of 90 days, after a key witness in a hospital corruption case was assassinated in prison. Then, the director of the penitentiary system recognized that there were recurring problems, among them the overcrowding of prisoners.
Faced with this situation, the director of the prisons called for a “sufficiently strong legal framework against these people who do not value the lives of human beings.”
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