Ecuador declares prison emergency after 116 killed in riot
Ecuador’s president has declared a state of emergency in the prison system following a battle among gang members in a jail in which at least 116 people were killed and 80 injured.
Officials, who described the incident as the worst prison massacre in the country’s history, said at least five of the dead were found to have been beheaded.
President Guillermo Lasso decreed a state of emergency on Wednesday, giving the government powers to deploy police and soldiers inside prisons.
The order came a day after violence at the Litoral prison in Guayaquil which officials blamed on gangs linked to international drug cartels fighting for control of the facility.
Mr Lasso, visibly moved by events, said at a news conference that what had happened in the prison was “bad and sad”. He also said he could not guarantee that the authorities had regained control of the jail.
“It is regrettable that the prisons are being turned into territories for power disputes by criminal gangs,” he said, adding that he would act with “absolute firmness” to regain control of the Litoral prison and prevent the violence from spreading to other jails.
Images circulating on social media showed dozens of bodies in the prison’s Pavilions 9 and 10 and scenes that looked like battlefields.
The fighting was with firearms, knives and bombs, officials said.
Earlier, regional police commander Fausto Buenano said that bodies were being found in the prison’s pipelines.
Outside the prison morgue, the relatives of inmates wept, with some describing to reporters the cruelty with which their loved ones were killed, decapitated and dismembered.
“In the history of the country, there has not been an incident similar or close to this one,” said Ledy Zuniga, the former president of Ecuador’s National Rehabilitation Council.
Ms Zuniga, who was also the country’s minister of justice in 2016, said she regretted that steps had not been taken to prevent another massacre following deadly prison riots last February.
Earlier, officials said the violence had erupted from a dispute between the Los Lobos and Los Choneros prison gangs.
Colonel Mario Pazmino, the former director of Ecuador’s military intelligence, said the fighting showed that “transnational organised crime has permeated the structure” of Ecuador’s prisons, adding that Mexico’s Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels operated through local gangs.
“They want to sow fear,” he told The Associated Press, urging the government to temporarily cede control of the prisons to the National Police.
“The more radical and violent the way they murder,” the more they achieve their goal of control, he added.
Ecuador’s president said that care points had been set up for inmates’ relatives with food and psychological support.
He added that a 24 million US dollars (£18 million) programme to address the country’s prisons would be accelerated, starting with investments in infrastructure and technology in the Litoral prison.
The former director of Ecuador’s prison bureau, Fausto Cobo, said that inside jails authorities faced a “threat with power equal to or greater than the state itself”.
He said that while security forces must enter prisons with shields and unarmed, they were met by inmates with high-calibre weapons.
In July, the president decreed another state of emergency in Ecuador’s prison system following several violent episodes that resulted in more than 100 inmates being killed.
Those deaths occurred in various prisons and not in a single facility as in Tuesday’s massacre.
Previously, the bloodiest day occurred in February, when 79 prisoners died in simultaneous riots in three prisons in the country.
In July, 22 more prisoners lost their lives in the Litoral jail, while in September a prison centre was attacked by drones leaving no fatalities.
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