President Guillermo Lasso ordered a state of emergency for the country’s prison system Wednesday night following more than 24 hours of gang warfare at the Guayaquil Litoral Penitentiary. Prison officials report that the death toll of Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s violence had risen to 116, with 80 more prisoners injured.
“It is regrettable that the prisons have been turned into a battleground for criminal gangs and the government will do what is necessary to restore order to the system and to protect the people of the country,” the president said in a short press conference in Guayaquil. “This is the deadliest day in the history of our prisons and one of the deadliest day, in fact, in the entire history of Ecuador.”
As Lasso spoke, more bodies were being removed from the prison and national prison director Bolívar Garzón said that the death toll could go even higher. Earlier, Garzón had apologized for misinformation about the violence, including an incorrect death count and a police statement that order had been restored to the prison early Wednesday. “In fact, the killings continued throughout the morning and early afternoon because we had not reestablished total control,” he said. “When we finally restored order we began to find more bodies, many of them beheaded and mutilated.”
According to police sources, the violence was the result of an order from an unnamed Mexican drug cartel to gang member followers to attack members of another gang in retaliation for hitman-style murders in Guayaquil and Manta. The government has acknowledged that four gangs operating within the prisons are associated with the cartels. “This is part of the international drug cartel war for territory,” a police officer, who asked not to be named, told a Guayaquil radio station. “This violence is happening in prisons in Colombia, Mexico and other Central American countries.”
Late Wednesday, the National Assembly Control Commission ordered the appearance of top government officials to explain why gang violence continues within the penal system. “The killings in the prisons began in February and we know exactly who is responsible,” said assemblyman and commission member Roberto Cuero. “Why haven’t measures been taken to end the massacres? Why aren’t the gang members locked away where they cannot commit these atrocities? If there no other means, they should be put in chains and shackles and watched 24 hours a day by guards armed with machine guns.”
In his televised comments, Lasso disputed the claim by prison officials that order had been restored at the Guayaquil prison. “We may have achieved temporary control but the situation, in general, is not controlled. We must make the changes necessary to take back control of the entire system.”
Hundreds of family members of prisoners have gathered at the prison gates and at the morgue where bodies are being taken waiting for information about the dead and injured. Guayas Province Governor Pablo Arosemena said Wednesday night that a reception center for prisoner families has been set up in the Abel Gilbert Coliseum in Parque Samanes and that the names of the dead and injured will be announced there when police complete their investigation.