New wave of violence in Ecuador’s prisons leaves 19 inmates dead in four days

According to official data, 442 prisoners have been killed in different massacres in prisons since January 2021

April 19, 2023 by Tanya Wadhwa
On April 14, at least 12 inmates were massacred and three were injured in a gunfight between rival gangs at the Litoral Penitentiary in Guayaquil city, Guayas province, Ecuador. Photo: Cómplice FM/Twitter

Violence continues to rock Ecuador’s prisons. In a new wave of brutality, at least 19 inmates and three prison officers were killed in two different prisons between April 12 and April 15.

The spate of violence began on Wednesday morning, April 12, when security guards at the Litoral Penitentiary in Guayaquil city, Guayas province, found six inmates hanged in their cells in one of the twelve wards that make up the prison. As a result of the incident, the National Comprehensive Care Service for Adults Deprived of Liberty and and Adolescent Offenders (SNAI), the state agency in charge of Ecuador’s penitentiaries, immediately suspended visits to the prison and requested that the Prosecutor’s Office identify the dead bodies. According to reports, ward no. 5, where the bodies were found, is controlled by the Las Águilas gang.

The next day, on Thursday, April 13, the SNAI reported that three female prison officers were killed by hitmen outside the same prison. The state agency expressed its solidarity with the families of the victims.

On Friday, April 14, the Litoral Penitentiary or CPL Guayas 1 was once again the scene of a brutal riot. At least 12 inmates were massacred in a gunfight between rival gangs. The shooting also left three prisoners injured. The fighting involved inmates from four wards: no. 3, 5, 8 and 9, and three criminal groups: Las Águilas, Los Tiguerones and Los Lobos. On Saturday, April 15, the SNAI assured that the authorities had regained control of the detention center with the help of the National Police and the Armed Forces.

The same night, a new shooting incident occurred in a prison in the city of Loja, located in southern Ecuador, in which an inmate lost his life. The SNAI regretted the violent episode and reported that inmates affected by a “nervous breakdown” had been provided with medical attention as well as psychological assistance.

On Tuesday, April 18, a new armed confrontation was recorded at the Litoral Penitentiary again, between the inmates from ward no. 3, 5, 8 and 9. Residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the prison center reported that they heard gunshots and detonations. The riot was controlled relatively quickly due to the presence of a large number of security officials following last week’s incidents, and apparently did not escalate.

Past massacres

The Litoral Penitentiary is the country’s largest and one of the most dangerous prisons. In the past two years, it has recorded at least nine violent incidents and some of the most brutal riots and goriest massacres.

In September 2021, it witnessed the deadliest massacre in the history of the country and one of the bloodiest in Latin America, when inmates clashed with guns, grenades and machetes. The violence claimed the lives of 119 prisoners and left around 80 gravely injured.

Prison crisis

Ecuador’s prisons have been plagued by shootings, riots and violent confrontations since 2021. According to official data, since January 2021, 442 prisoners have been killed in the state’s custody in different massacres in prisons. The government of conservative president Guillermo Lasso blames drug trafficking gangs fighting for territorial control for the crisis.

Nevertheless, human rights organizations have repeatedly highlighted that overcrowding, negligence of the authorities, and absence of crime prevention policies in the country are the fundamental reasons.

Last year, a United Nations delegation also found that the violence in Ecuador’s prisons was caused by years of state neglect of the penitentiary system.

Ecuador has over 60 prisons with a maximum capacity to house about 30,000 prisoners, but there are currently over 31,000 inmates locked up.

Violence and drug trafficking

The gang violence has also spread to the streets, especially in the port cities. Last Tuesday, on April 11, some thirty gunmen opened fire on the population in an artisanal fishing port in the Esmeraldas town and killed nine fishermen.

Two days later, on Thursday night, April 13, three explosions were recorded in different locations in Guayaquil; there were no casualties but damage was caused to several buildings in the city.

Faced with the onslaught of violence, last month, on March 3, Lasso declared a 60-day state of emergency in three coastal provinces, including Guayas and Esmeraldas, and deployment of the military to the streets. However, the security forces have struggled to address the growing drug-related violence.

Due to its location, between Colombia and Peru, the world’s leading cocaine producers, Ecuador has become a key transit point for drug shipments to the United States and Europe in recent years.

Ecuador’s prisons are said to have become a battleground for different groups to define control, resulting in deadly clashes at regular intervals.

Drug trafficking and the Lasso government

In January, digital media outlet La Posta published a series of documents and audio recordings that linked various government officials and President Lasso’s brother-in-law, Danilo Carrera, with alleged acts of corruption and drug trafficking.

La Posta’s investigative report revealed an alleged criminal structure for the appointment of positions and public contracts in exchange for money in state companies, linking Danilo Carrera’s friend and businessman Rubén Chérres and with various government officials, such as Hernán Luque, former president of the Coordinating Company of Public Companies (EMCO). According to the report, Chérres, Luque, and Carrera managed appointments to high positions within public companies and ministries, and decided which private companies work with the State in exchange for bribes.

The report also revealed Chérres’ alleged links with the members of the Albanian mafia, and that the mafia had chosen Ecuador as a strategic point for drug trafficking operations. It alleged that since Chérres and Carrera possessed influence over key institutions, such as the Customs service and the Ministry of Energy, they helped the members of the mafia disguise themselves under the facades of big businessmen and launder assets and promote arms and human trafficking in the country.

The report led to an impeachment process against Lasso for the crime of embezzlement of public funds. Lasso rejected the existence of a structure or network of corruption in his government and public energy companies. He condemned the trial as politically motivated. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Lasso said that he would dissolve the congress and force early general elections rather than allow lawmakers to impeach him.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, April 18, Carrera, who had also denied the accusations against him, was arrested at the José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport, in Guayaquil, when he tried to flee to New York. There was no arrest warrant issued against Carrera, but he was prohibited from leaving the country due to the case.

On January 21, the Prosecutor’s Office had issued arrest warrants against Chérres and Luque. However, last month, on March 31, Chérres was found dead with signs of torture, in a house in the town of Punta Blanca, Santa Elena province, which he had rented in January. At the same time, according to the interior ministry, Luque had already fled Ecuador and is allegedly in Argentina.