Coastal gangs changing tactics, Lasso says, as gov’t slows drug trade; 12 dead in new prison riot

Apr 15, 2023 | 17 comments

Acknowledging this week’s escalation of violence, President Guillermo Lasso told CNN Friday that the latest killings in Emeraldas and Guayaquil indicate that criminal gangs are changing tactics. “We have made impressive progress in interrupting drug shipments out of our ports and this is forcing gangs into new criminal enterprises.”

Police accompanied an ambulance outside Guayaquil’s Litoral Prison on Friday.

Lasso said that the installation of new scanning equipment at the ports in Guayaquil, Machala and Manta has led to record seizures of cocaine and other drugs headed to European ports. “The cartels and their associates are aware of the improved surveillance and not attempting to send as many shipments from the ports,” he said.

Lasso added that the ports of Antwerp, Belgium and Rotterdam, Netherlands, the primary destinations of drug shipments from Ecuador, are also reporting smaller confiscation amounts. He said approximately 60% of illegal drugs shipped from Ecuador are destined for Europe.

Extortion of organizations and businesses is one of the tactics gangs are adopting to generate income, Lasso said. “The horrible events in Esmeraldas are evidence of this and we must adjust our law enforcement approach to confront this threat.”

Also on Friday, Interior Minister Juan Zapata said the country is “entering a new phase” in the fight against criminal organizations. “We are at the worst moment of the crisis of violence in Ecuador,” he told a Teleamazonas interviewer. “Events in Esmeraldas show a new level of ruthlessness by the gangs operating in our coastal provinces.”

Like Lasso, Zapata said gangs are expanding their criminal activities beyond transport of drugs. “What happened in Esmeraldas is an indication of this,” he said.

Despite the high number of killings in Esmeraldas and Guayaquil, he said the “insecurity situation” is often exaggerated. “Social media reported there were 10 attacks, some with explosives, in Guayaquil on Thursday night and this was false,” he said. “In addition to real crimes, we are also confronting a contagion of false information.”

He said that a U.S. Embassy announcement Wednesday warning of imminent bombings in Guayaquil was a “false alarm.” He said he has requested information from embassy officials regarding the report but has not received a response.

Following Lasso’s and Zapata’s interviews Friday, twelve inmates died in a riot at the Litoral Penitentiary in Guayaquil in what officials describe as “a conflict between gangs.” The riot followed Thursday murders of three prison guards at the same prison.

Although the prison director says calm as been restored at the prison’s pavilions three, five, eight and nine, he said bodies of the dead will not be removed until Saturday to ensure the safety of ambulance staff.

National Police command reported that all hostile activity had ended by 8:30 p.m., Friday, and said its Special Prison Action Team was conducting a search for other victims. “We believe we have a full count but because the disturbance occurred in several pavilions, a thorough search is required.” Police said that all civilian staff were evacuated at the outset of the riot Friday morning.

Representatives of the prosecutor’s office were on the scene Friday and were beginning an investigation.

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