UN experts sound alarm as Ecuador sees more deadly prison clashes

Recent violence in Ecuador’s prisons is the result of ‘decades of state abandonment’, United Nations panel says.

Relatives push fences outside an Ecuadorian prison
Relatives try to find out if their loved ones were among the dead following a riot at a prison in Latacunga, Ecuador, October 4, 2022 [Karen Toro/Reuters]

A panel of United Nations experts has raised “grave” concerns about the deadly violence plaguing Ecuador’s prisons, as officials in the South American nation said after more than two dozen people were killed in bloody clashes this week.

At least 13 people died and 23 others – including five police officers – were wounded in new fighting on Wednesday at a prison in the northeastern port city of Guayaquil, the country’s prison authority (SNAI) said.

The agency on Thursday expressed “solidarity with the families in these painful moments”, adding that it had retaken control of the penitentiary.

Separate clashes on Monday and Tuesday left at least 16 dead and 43 injured at another prison in the city of Latacunga, approximately 300km (186 miles) from Guayaquil.

Hundreds of people have been killed in prison violence across Ecuador during the past few years, with authorities blaming the clashes on rival drug gangs battling for smuggling routes and control of the facilities.

Experts have pointed to systemic issues, however, including a lack of rehabilitation programmes for inmates and shortages of trained prison staff, as major factors contributing to the continuing violence. In May, Amnesty International said imprisonment is nearly a “death sentence” in Ecuador.

Relatives stand outside a prison in Ecuador after a deadly riot
Relatives stand outside the prison in Latacunga, Ecuador, where deadly clashes erupted this week, on October 4, 2022 [Galo Paguay/AFP]

“The recent violence is the consequence of decades of state abandonment,” said Maria Luisa Romero, who led a delegation from the United Nations’s Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture to Ecuador between September 25 and October 1.

“Detainees have been living in a state of tension and constant fear, in prisons lacking essential services and basic resources. Some spaces in these prisons are self-governed by detainees who are members of criminal organisations,” she said in a statement on Thursday.

While the UN delegation “recognised Ecuador’s commitment to addressing the dramatic prison crisis” and said members were granted unrestricted access to detention facilities, it added that “there are actions that need to be taken.”

“We will provide further recommendations to the State party in our report,” the statement said.

The Ecuadorian authorities did not immediately respond to the UN agency’s findings.

Earlier this week, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also called on the government to launch a “prompt, serious and impartial” investigation into the riots in Latacunga, as well as take action to ensure similar violence does not happen again.

Prison overcrowding has been eased somewhat from 30 percent in 2021 through the use of pardons and parole for good behaviour, but remains a major problem. The facilities currently house about 33,500 inmates and exceed maximum capacity by 11.3 percent, according to official figures.

In a bid to improve conditions, President Guillermo Lasso also launched an inmate census in August.

Meanwhile, families waiting for information about their loved ones outside of the prison in Guayaquil were dispersed by police using tear gas on Wednesday night, according to the local advocacy group, the Permanent Committee for the Defence of Human Rights in Ecuador.

In a single riot in September of last year, one of the bloodiest in Latin American history, 122 inmates were killed at Guayas 1, the same section of the Guayaquil prison where Wednesday’s clashes occurred.

Police said those injured there this week included five of their own who were attacked “with firearms while intervening to restore order”. Some of the inmates were injured by “explosives”, which also caused structural damage to the facility, according to the prison authority.

The Guayaquil prison is 20 percent overpopulated.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies