Ecuador plunges into crisis amid prison riots and kidnappings | ET REALITY


Masked gunmen stormed a television station in Ecuador’s largest city on Tuesday, taking presenters and staff hostage and exchanging gunfire with police as cameras rolled before the intruders were subdued and arrested.

Televised violence, captured live, erupted as the South American country descended into chaos this week, with the disappearance of a powerful prison gang leader, uprisings breaking out in several prisons and inmates kidnapping and threatening guards.

One of the men who burst into the television station was heard on air asking for a microphone to be connected to him, saying he intended to send a message about the consequences of “messing with the mafias.” Before he could, the police intervened. The gunmen also forced the presenters and other detained staff to ask the president not to intervene.

Explosions, vehicle burnings, looting and gunshots were also reported across the country, and authorities announced that a second top gang leader and other inmates had escaped from another prison.

President Daniel Noboa declared an internal armed conflict on Tuesday and ordered the armed forces to “neutralize” two dozen gangs, which he called “terrorist organizations,” according to a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Shops, schools and offices, public and private, were closed. Workers were sent home and the streets were jammed with traffic.

“It was chaotic, as you can imagine,” said Carolina Valencia, who was visiting her family in Guayaquil from New York. “There was traffic everywhere because people just wanted to get home. The buses were not fully operational, so people were getting into the vans that are open in the back.”

“There was a lot of desperation,” he added. “Ever since this gangster disappeared, everyone has been in constant fear.”

Noboa, who has prioritized restoring security in a country inundated by gang violence fueled by a flourishing drug trade, had earlier declared a state of emergency and deployed more than 3,000 police and military to search for the gang leader. fugitive gang, Adolfo Macías.

The 60-day declaration imposes a nationwide nightly curfew and allows the military to patrol the streets and take control of prisons.

“The time is over for drug prisoners, hitmen and organized crime to dictate to the government what to do,” Noboa said in a video announcing the state of emergency on Monday, adding that it was necessary for security forces to take control of the Ecuadorian penitentiary system.

Macías, leader of the Los Choneros gang and better known as “Fito,” disappeared Sunday from an overcrowded prison in the coastal city of Guayaquil, from where he has long overseen his group’s operations.

The government had ordered the transfer of high-profile convicts, including Macías, from the cells where they have been running their criminal networks to a maximum security facility. That decision, prison experts said, may have led to Mr. Macías’ escape and prison uprisings.

Some security experts believe that up to a quarter of the country’s 36 prisons are controlled by gangs. Noboa has promised to regain control of the prisons, which have become both gang headquarters and recruiting centers.

Last week he announced he was seeking to hold a referendum on security measures, including tougher sentences for crimes such as murder and arms trafficking, and expanding the role of the military.

Noboa, the center-right scion of a banana dynasty, took office in November after an election dominated by concerns about security and the economy. Violence has spiked in recent years as gangs fight for control of lucrative drug trafficking routes that transport narcotics to the United States and Europe.

These fears were amplified by the assassination during the electoral campaign of another presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, who shortly before his assassination had said that he had been under threat from Los Choneros.

Macías is perhaps the best known of the gang leaders who run drug operations from behind bars, and his group is believed to have been one of the first in Ecuador to forge ties with powerful Mexican cartels.

Macías, who is serving a 34-year sentence for crimes including drug trafficking, escaped from prison once before, in 2013. He became the leader of Los Choneros around 2020 and presided over the gang’s activities from his cell in the Guayaquil prison. , part of a complex that houses about 12,000 inmates.

After Villavicencio’s murder last summer, Macías was briefly transferred to a maximum security wing in the same complex. But his lawyer appealed and a judge ordered Macías returned to his preferred location in the Guayaquil prison, which serves as the Choneros’ base.

He celebrated by releasing a music video in the style of a “narcocorrido,” a genre originating in Mexico that glorifies the violent exploits of drug traffickers.

Last month, Noboa, promoting his plans to tackle the country’s prisons, said he would start with measures such as cutting off Macías’ access to power outlets and routers. “You can see on YouTube that Fito’s cell phone has four plugs, more plugs than in a hotel room.”

Mr. Macías was found missing from his cell during a raid looking for contraband. His disappearance came as he and other high-profile criminals were scheduled to be sent to the maximum-security prison, according to officials.

A senior government official suggested this week that Macías may have learned of his impending transfer through a government leak. “That would be very serious,” said official Esteban Torres, because “it would mean that there is rot at the highest levels of the government.”

Securing Ecuador’s prisons is vital to ensuring that efforts to root out corruption are effective, said Will Freeman, a researcher in Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“We must ensure that when people are sent to prison for money laundering or for working in complicity with organized crime as public officials, the punishment is significant and that criminal networks do not continue to operate from prisons,” he said. saying.

He said a state of emergency could help stabilize prisons, since the entity in charge of managing the prison system had failed to control gangs, but that it was not a long-term solution. He noted that Mr. Noboa’s predecessor had repeatedly imposed similar measures.

“Obviously they did not improve the situation in a lasting way,he said.

Jorge Núñez, an anthropologist who has studied the Ecuadorian prison system for years, said Noboa was not doing anything dramatically different when it came to the prison system.

“It’s a mix of improvisation and basically doing the same thing,” said Núñez, who said the previous government had handed over the prisons to the police, which had overlooked “growth and excessive empowerment of prison gangs.”

The privileges granted to cartel leaders increased over time, he added.

Prison sweeps have revealed not only large caches of weapons and electronics, but also pigs, roosters and a cockfighting arena.

On Monday night, as the first curfew approached, the streets of Quito, the capital, quickly became deserted. Only police cars and ambulances could be seen in a silence reminiscent of the confinement due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The curfew affects us directly,” said Junior Córdova, a restaurant owner in Quito. “We had a great start to the year, but now it’s not looking so good, because people are starting to feel afraid.”

Genevieve Glatsky contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia, and José María León Cabrera from Quito, Ecuador.

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