New fighting is reported at Guayaquil prison as desperate inmate family members await news
Desperate families have gathered at the federal penitentiary in Guayaquil where police continue to struggle to bring fighting under control that has left at least 116 inmates dead. The battle first broke out on Tuesday, with prisoners using explosives and firearms on each other.
Families are seeking news about the fate of loved ones but with some victims decapitated or dismembered, identifying the bodies could take days. The gang-related violence is the worst in Ecuador’s history.
What is happening inside the Guayas prison complex, also known as the Litoral Penitentiary, is unclear. Officials said on Wednesday the jail was back under their control, but early on Thursday neighbours said they had heard explosions and gunshots.
Shortly afterwards, police said it was sending 400 officers back in to “maintain order”.
The fight first broke out on Tuesday when inmates from one wing of the prison crawled through a hole to gain access to a different wing, where they attacked rival gang members. Police managed to get six cooks, who were trapped in the wing where the fight happened, to safety and only two police officers were injured.
Ecuador’s prison director, Bolívar Garzón, said that police had entered the prison on Tuesday and found 24 bodies. According to Mr Garzón, there was renewed shooting inside the prison overnight Tuesday into Wednesday and as police went through the prison wings one by one, they found scores more bodies, bringing the death toll to 116.
With security forces inside and outside of the jail, families of inmates face an anxious wait. Some of the relatives said they had been sent photos and video from inside the prison but had been given no official confirmation as to whether their family member was among the victims.
Quito newspaper El Comercio reported that one woman had recognised her husband in one of the videos. She said he was one of those who had been decapitated.
The fact that only two police officers have been injured but more than 100 inmates killed strongly suggests this is a war among inmates rather than an attempt at a prison uprising.
Local media are reporting that the brutal killings could have been ordered from outside the prison mirroring a power struggle between Mexican cartels currently under way in Ecuador. The Litoral Penitentiary holds inmates from Los Choneros, an Ecuadorian gang which is thought to have links with Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa drugs cartel.
But another Mexican criminal group, the Jalisco New Generation cartel, is also trying to forge alliances with Ecuadorian gangs to seize control of drug smuggling routes leading from Ecuador to Central America from its Sinaloa rivals.
The decapitations and the brutal nature of the violence seen inside the Litoral prison are hallmarks of the Mexican cartels, which often kill their rivals in the most gruesome ways to spread further terror.
This most recent prison fight is the deadliest in the history of Ecuador’s prison system but there have been a number of brutal confrontations in the past year. In February, 79 prisoners were killed in simultaneous fights at four jails, including the Cuenca, Latacunga an Litoral penitentiaries.
Ecuador is a transit country for cocaine smuggled from neighbouring Peru and Colombia, and the powerful Mexican drug cartels are said to operate through local gangs.
Inside jails there are problems with overcrowding and a shortage of guards. Police are often met with prisoners who are heavily armed. After the latest incident, Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency in the prison system, which allows officials to suspend certain rights and use the military to regain control.
He also said support would be provided to inmates’ relatives. The government is directing family members to a civic center to received information but many refuse to leave the area around the prison.