Ecuador experienced an unprecedented prison crisis on Tuesday, February 23, with the death of at least 75 detainees during violence in three prisons in the country. The assassination of the leader of a criminal gang, in December in a restaurant in the port city of Manta, is believed to be at the origin of these deadly clashes.
A murderous day in overcrowded prisons
Prison overcrowding is a chronic disease in Latin America, a part of the world regularly shaken by inmate mutinies or clashes behind bars. A particularly important problem, in particular, in Brazil or Colombia.
On Tuesday, it was in Ecuador, where 38,000 detainees crammed into a detention center intended for 29,000 people, that the violence broke out. The prisons of Cuenca, Latacunga and Guayaquil, the second largest city in the country, have been rocked by an unprecedented wave of violence, which has claimed at least 75 prisoners.
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Nearly 800 police officers were sent to reinforce the guards, few in number – there are 1,500 across the country – but order could not be restored until the end of the day, with the help of the army. deployed around the premises.
According to the authorities, these clashes also caused injuries in the ranks of the police, but no figures have been communicated. This crisis comes as Ecuador, one of the countries hardest hit by the first wave of Covid-19 in 2020, has implemented sentence substitution measures for minor offenses, bringing prison overcrowding by 42% last year at 30% today.
Tensions for several months
According to the authorities, this outbreak of violence could be explained by the war being waged by criminal gangs for the control of territories and markets, drugs in particular. A search carried out on Sunday in the prison of Guayaquil would have been the trigger, according to Edmundo Moncayo, director of the penitentiary service (SNAI). Two firearms, which were to be used to eliminate several chiefs, were seized, discovery having triggered ” the murder of prisoners from other centers ”.
Since 2019, signs of tension have multiplied in Ecuadorian prisons. Last August, after new clashes between gangs, President Lenin Moreno decreed a state of emergency for a period of 90 days, in order to better control the “Mafias which create chaos in penitentiary centers”.
This had not prevented, at the beginning of December, a mutiny which had already left eleven dead and seven wounded among the detainees. The year 2020 ended with a death toll of 51 prisoners.
Clashes between rival gangs
Despite the state of emergency decreed by the Head of State, calm had returned only in a very precarious manner. The assassination, on December 28, of the leader of the gang “Los Choneros” in the city of Manta, a new episode in the rivalry between criminal organizations, has further aggravated the situation, according to the director of SNAI, between desire for revenge and internal conflict in order to take the leadership left vacant.
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“Los Choneros” were formed at the end of the 1990s in the north of the country, not far from Manta. Born from the local drug trade, the gang subsequently developed to the point of controlling this region, a stopover on the drug route to the United States, Mexico and Europe.
Become major players, “Los Choneros” have come into conflict with other criminal groups, including the “Lizards”. The violence in August had opposed detainees from these two competing organizations.