Toll from Ecuador jail riots hits 31 as army wrests back control

Death toll from riots in Ecuador’s prisons climbs as soldiers storm a violence-hobbled jail in port of Guayaquil.

Soldiers guard a gate at a prison in Ecuador in 2022
Soldiers guard a gate after several people were killed in fights between gangs at a prison in Guayaquil, Ecuador on November 2, 2022 [File: Santiago Arcos/Reuters]

Dozens of people have died from a wave of violence in Ecuador’s most dangerous prison, officials said, hours as President Guillermo Lasso imposed a 60-day state of emergency across the country’s penitentiary system.

The prosecutor’s office raised the toll to 31 from 18 late on Tuesday after some 2,700 soldiers were deployed to take control of the over-crowded Guayas 1 prison in the port city of Guayaquil.

Battles between the rival gangs there had left 14 wounded, it said.

The government, via its communications secretariat Segcom, said “total control” has now been regained at Guayas 1, which houses more than 5,600 inmates.

It said some 120 prison officers had also been freed after being held hostage in six jails around the country. There was no official information about hunger strikes allegedly taking place at some prisons.

Earlier, Guillermo ordered police and military forces to assert control over the South American nation’s prisons, saying in a decree that inmates in Guayaquil used firearms during the unrest and set fire to facilities using gas tanks.

The decree said that at least one of the dead in the violence had been beheaded.

“With effort, commitment and continuous work, we will move forward and recover the peace that organised crime has taken from us,” Lasso later said in a post on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. “We have to be more united than ever to win this battle.”

Hours after the decree, a new wave of violence was reported in the city of Esmeraldas, where 15 prison guards and two other staffers were being held hostage at a local jail, the government said.

In Esmeraldas itself, a police unit was attacked, explosives were placed at gas stations and several cars were burned. The attorney general’s office said on social media that one civilian was hurt in a Molotov cocktail attack on its office there.

The latest emergency is the second that Lasso has declared in the last 24 hours.

The president on Monday imposed a state of emergency  in the provinces of Los Rios and Manabi, as well as in the city of Duran, after the mayor of Manta, a port city about 400km (250 miles) southwest of the capital of Quito, was shot and killed.

Conditions in Ecuador’s prison system have long drawn concern from officials and human rights groups.

The Guayas 1 prison can hold 9,500 people but it exceeded that capacity by about 3,000 during the first quarter of this year.

It is considered the most dangerous detention facility in Ecuador and fighting between rival gangs in 2021 killed 119 prisoners.

A committee appointed by Lasso to look into prison conditions last year found that the country’s penitentiaries were akin to “torture centers”.

During his time in office, Lasso has regularly declared states of emergency in response to violence within prisons across the country.

Military intervention in the prisons will continue until control has been retaken and there is no threat to prisoners or officials, the government said on Tuesday.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies