No end in sight for Ecuador’s prison crisis

A riot took place in Ecuador’s Bellavista prison following the latest massacre of 44 inmates on Monday May 9. Human rights organizations have called on the government to address structural problems facing the penitentiary system

May 15, 2022 by Tanya Wadhwa
Forensic team working on the respective recognition, identification and autopsy of deceased inmates at the Bellavista Social Rehabilitation Center in Santo Domingo after the riot on May 9. Photo: Ecuadorian Prosecutor’s Office/Twitter

On May 11, a new riot was recorded at the Bellavista Social Rehabilitation Center in Santo Domingo city in Ecuador, where 44 inmates were massacred in a brawl between rival drug trafficking gangs on Monday, May 9.

Videos posted on social networks showed that several prisoners climbed onto the roof of the prison facilities, demanding protection from the police and military, and denouncing that the prisoners in the maximum security wing had taken over the medium security wing. Meanwhile, the relatives of prisoners, who had gathered outside the prison demanding safety of their imprisoned loved ones, were seen pleading that the security officials stop the violence and avoid another massacre. Soon, more reinforcements arrived at the prison and the new riot was controlled.

“The security protocols were immediately activated with the Police and Armed Forces in the event of an incident alert,” the National Comprehensive Care Service for Adults Deprived of Liberty and Adolescent Offenders of Ecuador (SNAI).

In the previous riot, on May 9, 44 ​​people were killed and 13 were injured after a fight broke out between rival Los Lobos and R7 gangs in the prison’s maximum-security wing, following the transfer of an inmate known as Anchundia, linked to R7, from La Roca prison to Bellavista by court order.

In addition to casualties, according to reports, 220 prisoners escaped from the prison amid the chaos. Of these 200 inmates were recaptured, while 20 still remain missing.

During a subsequent search of the maximum-security wing, Police found lethal weapons in inmates’ cell, including four rifles, three pistols, one revolver, four grenades and 1,800 2.23 caliber cartridges.

Monday’s riot occurred just over a month after another riot that left 20 inmates dead and and 10 wounded in Cuenca City’s Turi prison on April 3. During that riot, which began in rejection of the transfer of five prisoners from Turi to La Roca prison in Guayas, the bodies of five people were found mutilated. At the time, interior minister and former police commander Patricio Carrillo reported that the prisoners used rifles, pistols, and other “war materials” during the confrontation.

UN expresses concerns

Following Monday’s bloody incident, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed its concern over the recurring prison violence in Ecuador and called on conservative president Guillermo Lasso’s government to formulate urgent reforms to guarantee security and reduce prison population.

Spokesperson for OHCHR, Liz Throssell, at a press conference in Geneva, stressed that “these worrying incidents once again highlight the urgent need for a comprehensive reform of the criminal justice system, including the penitentiary system to tackle what has been a protracted crisis in the country.”

She emphasized that “the responsibility of the State for the security of all people in its custody creates a presumption of State responsibility for these deaths” and called for “a full investigation of the violent incidents.”

Prison crisis and violence in Ecuador

Ecuador’s prison system has been going through a severe crisis for over a year due to riots and massacres of inmates, resulting from clashes between rival gangs. According to official data, between December 2020 and May 2022, at least 390 people have been killed in six prison massacres.

One of the worst was in September 2021, when 119 inmates were killed and over 80 were injured at a prison in Guayaquil city. Less than two months later, another 68 prisoners died in a new clash at the same prison. The riots were particularly brutal, with some prisoners beheaded or hacked to death with machetes.

The Lasso administration has blamed drug trafficking gangs vying for control of the prisons for the crisis. Ecuador is a key transit route for cocaine smuggled from neighboring Colombia and Peru. Ecuador’s prisons are said to have become a battleground for different groups to define control.

On the other hand, human rights organizations have highlighted that overcrowding, negligence of the authorities, and absence of crime prevention policies in the country are the fundamental reasons for the massacres.

Ecuador has over 60 prisons with a maximum capacity to house about 30,000 prisoners, but there are currently over 36,500 inmates locked up. At least 40% of them are in pretrial detention. In February, Lasso announced that he would grant pardon to around 5,000 prisoners convicted of minor crimes, and would hire 1,400 new prison guards. Rights organizations rejected the pardon policy as discriminatory and called for a more comprehensive approach.

The situation of violence outside the prisons also continues to soar. Last month, on April 19, interior minister Carrillo reported that up until that day 1,180 violent deaths were recorded in the country in 2022. The figure represented a 100% increase in deaths as compared to the same period in 2020.

On April 30, President Lasso, declared a 60-day state of emergency in three coastal provinces -Guayas, Manabí and Esmeraldas- in response to the violence. Around 9,000 soldiers and police officials were deployed to restore order in areas controlled by mafias.

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