“Strategy of terror”: 116 dead as Ecuadorian prisons become battlegrounds for gangs | Ecuador

A bitter fight between rival Mexican cartels to control Ecuador’s cocaine trafficking routes erupted during a day of bloodshed inside a top-security prison that left 116 inmates dead . Many victims were massacred with chainsaws or beheaded with machetes.

As security forces fought to retake Litoral Penitentiary in the coastal city of Guayaquil on Wednesday, dozens of bodies were found dumped in bathrooms and hallways, piled up and burned in courtyards, or even stuffed into ventilation ducts.

A day earlier, graphic images posted on social media showed inmates from rival gangs Los Choneros and Los Lobos fighting with machetes, guns and grenades, during the third – and by far the deadliest – riot in prison this year.

Colonel Mario Pazmiño, Ecuador’s former director of military intelligence, said the escalation in savagery was due to Mexican criminal groups vying for control of lucrative smuggling routes via local criminal gangs. The Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels both operate through national “mega-gangs,” which include Los Choneros, Los Lobos as well as Los Tigretones and Los Lagartos, he said.

“This kind of depraved violence has developed as gangs fight for control of prisons,” Pazmiño told The Guardian. ” Violence ; dismemberment, beheading, is a strategy to sow terror among prisoners to gain territorial control – not just inside the prison but outside.

Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso, returning from an official trip to the United States and the UN General Assembly, has announced a 60-day state of emergency in the country’s prisons. He said he would deploy police and military and spend $ 24 million in public funds to pacify prisons.

“Unfortunately, prisons have become a ground for power struggles between gangs,” said Lasso, who became president earlier this year, on Wednesday evening. “The state will act.

The rise in violence appears to be linked to the assassination of longtime Los Choneros leader Jorge Luis Zambrano, aka “Rasquiña”, in December, Pazmiño added.

“Extreme violence has normalized in prisons,” said Itania Villarreal, former director of the public institution that works on the rehabilitation of prisoners. “There have been the most atrocious and inhumane murders, with beheadings, arson, even the use of chainsaws to commit these acts.

Distraught relatives, mostly women, thronged outside the prison, demanding news of their loved ones. As of Thursday, authorities began to compile a list of the dead.

Ecuador – sandwiched between Colombia and Peru, the two largest cocaine-producing countries in the world – is a strategic smuggling route due to its long Pacific coast and its large shipping and fishing fleets.

“The prison system has collapsed,” Villarreal said, accusing authorities of failing to transfer dangerous gang members to maximum security prisons and of a shortage of hundreds of prison workers for the country’s 39,000 inmates. .

“It is very serious because the country does not protect the lives of these prisoners.

More than 200 detainees have died in violence in Ecuador this year, more than double the number last year. In February, 79 people were killed as rival gangs competed for control in three prisons. In July, 22 other prisoners lost their lives in the same prison as the last outbreak.

Then, in September, another prison was attacked by drones in what prison authorities called a “war between international cartels”. There were no casualties in this incident.

Prisons across Latin America are overcrowded and controlled by criminal gangs who use them as headquarters to coordinate drug trafficking and other criminal activity outside. Over the past 30 years, prisons in the region have repeatedly witnessed massive riots that have left more than 100 dead.

The situation worsened, Pazmiño said, because organized crime had entered government institutions and corruption meant that guns and other weapons could be smuggled into prisons.

“The Ecuadorian state has lost control of the prison system,” he said.

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