Review agencies say little has been done to improve prison conditions; Criminal gangs are still in charge

Sep 29, 2022 | 14 comments

On the anniversary of the most deadly prison riot in Ecuador history, representatives of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations say little progress has been made to improve security conditions within the country’s prison system.

Prisoners are lined up following a 2021 riot at the Latacunga prison.

On Tuesday, a year after 125 inmates died in a riot at the Litoral Penitentiary in Guayaquil, the IACHR said most of the government’s response has been “reactive, not proactive.” In preliminary comments following a two-month review of the public prisons, IACHR representatives said most of the underlying problems with prison management remain unresolved. “Unfortunately, prison gangs continue to play a central role in the lives of all prisoners, a situation that management has not been able to control,” an IACHR spokesman said.

“The review committees were following up on their visits in December and found the situation in the prisons mostly unchanged,” said Ecuador Ombudsman César Córdova. “It is true that the number of prisoners has been reduced and some of the gang leaders have been relocated but little has changed with the overall management system.”

In addition to the September 27, 2021 death toll at Litoral, another 350 prisoners in state penitentiaries have died in riots since 2020. Besides Litoral, mass killings have occurred in prisons in Quito, Latacunga, Cuenca and Esmeraldas. “The flow of weapons into prisons continues and little has been done to restrict communication between incarcerated gang leaders and their cohorts on the streets,” Córdova said.

He added that plans to improve training and salaries for guards have not materialized. “The culture among inmates, which has led to the riots, remains mostly the same and very dangerous.”

According to UN review team member Nelsa Curbelo, inmates who do not want to be part of gang activities are unprotected within the prisons. “In addition to the lack of internal security, there is inattention to basic needs such as health, food and decent living conditions in the cells,” he says. “This leads to conflict among inmates and gives authority to gang leaders who use threats and extortion as means of providing services and protection. There is the constant threat of violence.”

Among procedural changes prison officials said they would make last year, few have been implemented, says Curbelo. “The government has purchased scanning equipment to stop the entry of weapons but little of it has been installed. The same is true of the equipment to jam internet and phone signals to stop communication with the outside world.”

The gang structure within the prisons remains mostly intact, Córdova says. “The Tiguerones and the Los Choneros Pimps continue to dictate rules in most prisons, with other gangs playing smaller roles,” he says.

“We are all disappointed by the government’s lack of action,” Córdova says. “The situation is terrible and very unfair for the prisoners who simply want to serve their sentences and pay for the crimes they committed,” he said. “They live in constant fear for their lives.”


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