A prolonged gunbattle between rival gangs inside Ecuador’s largest prison killed at least 68 inmates and wounded 25 on Saturday, while authorities said it took most of the day to regain control at the Litoral Penitentiary, which recently saw the country’s worst prison bloodbath.
The killing erupted before dawn at the prison in Guayaquil in what officials said was the latest outbreak of fighting among prison gangs linked to international drug cartels. Videos circulating on social media showed bodies, some burned, lying on the ground inside the prison. The shooting lasted around eight hours, officials said, and then new clashes were reported in part of the prison in the afternoon.
Presidential spokesman Carlos Jijón finally announced after nightfall that “the situation is controlled throughout the penitentiary.” He said about 900 police officers had taken control of the situation.
The latest riot sparked a heated exchange between the government of President Guillermo Lasso and the country’s judicial system. Lasso and Interior Minister Alexandra Vera said recent court decisions to free dangerous prisoners is partly responsible for the violence. The Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court, said it had issued repeated warnings to Lasso and former president Lenin Moreno about poor conditions in the prisons.
In the initial fighting late Friday, inmates “tried to dynamite a wall to get into Pavilion 2 to carry out a massacre. They also burned mattresses to try to to drown (their rivals) in smoke,” said the governor of Guayas province, Pablo Arosemena. “We are fighting against drug trafficking,” Arosemena said. “It is very hard.”
The bloodshed came less than two months after fighting among gangs killed 119 people at the prison, which houses more than 8,000 inmates.
Police commander Gen. Tanya Varela said early in the day that drones flown over the chaos revealed that inmates in three pavilions were armed with guns and explosives. Authorities have said that weapons and ammunition are smuggled into prisoners through vehicles that deliver supplies and sometimes by drones.
The prison violence comes amid a national state of emergency decreed by President Guillermo Lasso in October that empowers security forces to fight drug trafficking and other crimes.
On Saturday, Lasso tweeted that “the first right that we should guarantee should be the right to life and liberty, which isn’t possible if security forces can’t act to protect.” He was referring the Constitutional Court’s recent refusal to allow the military into prisons despite the state of emergency. Soldiers are currently outside the Litoral.
Earlier, Varela blamed the violence “in part” on the recent release of gang leader that created a “power vacuum” among imprisoned gang members. “The prisoners were attacked because a few days ago their leader was released allowing other criminal organizations to attempt to take over that pavilion. The unit was without a ringleader.”
The prisoner Varela referred to was Álex Salazar, leader of Los Tiguerones, a gang aligned with the Mexican Sinolao drug cartel. On November 10, Salazar was ordered released by a provincial court after serving 60 percent of sentence. “We are not only fighting the drug gangs, but our own court system,” Varela said.
Varela also criticized court-imposed rules that prohibit prison guards from carrying weapons.
In a rare public rebuttal, the Constitutional Court fired back at Lasso and blamed the government for failing to correct “structural problems” within the prisons that it had warned about since 2018. “It is unfair that the government should evade its responsibilities by shifting blame to the courts,” the court said.
Ecuador’s penitentiaries are seeing a wave of brutal violence.
The bloody fighting inside Litoral prison that killed 119 inmates in late September was described by authorities as the South American country’s worst ever prison massacre. Officials said at least five of the dead were beheaded. Last February, 79 inmates were killed in simultaneous riots in various prisons. So far this year, more than 300 prisoners have died in clashes in penitentiaries across Ecuador.
Outside the prison, relatives of inmates gathered for news of their loved ones.