At least 44 inmates have been killed in Ecuador’s latest deadly prison riot, government officials say. A fight broke out Sunday between rival gangs Los Lobos and R7 at the federal prison in Santo Domingo, 80 kilometers west of Quito.
Ecuador is battling a wave of gang violence, and has recently seen its most deadly prison riots in history. Three coastal provinces are under a state of emergency because of the rising crime, most of it related to the illegal drug trade.
During the riot total of 108 inmates escaped the prison during the riot and remain missing as of Monday, National Police report. An additional 112 prisoners made it out before being recaptured.
Scores were injured in the riot, but the exact number is still unclear.
The newspaper El Universo reported that, according to the National Police Commander Fausto Salinas, the incident was triggered by a brawl involving the transfer of an inmate known as Anchundia into the prison. He had been one of the ringleaders who had caused a previous prison riot in April, the paper said. Anchundia had previously been held at a prison in Cuenca, which has also experienced deadly riots.
The Interior Ministry, which is responsible for administering the national prisons, announced Monday afternoon that it is transferring six inmates believed to be leaders of the uprising, to a high security facility in Guayaquil.
Pictures from outside the prison show bloodied inmates being carried from trucks to waiting ambulances. Many of the dead had been mutilated, prison guards say, a number of them decapitated. As news of the riot spread throughout the community, many relatives gathered outside the facility, distraught and desperate for news.
President Guillermo Lasso sent his condolences to the families of those who died, and said it was the “unfortunate result of gang violence”.
Ecuador’s Interior Minister, Patricio Carrillo, wrote on Twitter that the government was working “to overcome the problems of the prison system, but it is complex to find quick solutions in an environment of violence.” He added that the government is pinning its hope on increased law enforcement efforts in neighborhoods known as “drug transfer points.”
Nearly 400 inmates have now been killed in six separate riots since February 2021.
One of the worst was in September, when 119 inmates were killed at a prison in Guayaquil in western Ecuador. Less than two months later, at least 68 prisoners died in fresh fighting at the same prison. The riots are particularly brutal, with some prisoners hacked to death, or beheaded with machetes.
Last month a 60-day state of emergency was declared in three coastal provinces — Guayas, Manabí and Esmeraldas — in response to the violence. Bellavista Prison in Santo Domingo is outside of the three provinces.
President Lasso, who took office in May last year, has blamed drug trafficking for Ecuador’s crime problems. Increasingly, the country is used as a transit route for cocaine smuggled from neighboring Peru and Colombia, and the powerful Mexican drug cartels are said to operate through local gangs. Much of the smuggling, experts say, is carried using legitimate international shipping operations, with European destinations.
Lasso has boosted the police force and pardoned inmates who were convicted of minor crimes to ease overcrowding in prisons, but critics say the situation remains out of control.