The war inside Ecuador’s prisons

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Their fourth son is alive but in the same prison — leaving him horribly vulnerable, Villasis told Granthshala on Saturday.

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“He is my last son,” said Villasis. “He’s inside for drug abuse, I know he’s made a mistake, but inside he risks his life.”

Prison officials are currently in the process of identifying the bodies of 118 people killed last week at Guayaquil’s Littoral Penitentiary.

But their job is a difficult one: Many were mutilated with fatal wounds, many prisoners were beheaded or burned black, the police forensics team told Granthshala – testament to the brutality of the clashes and explosions that began on Tuesday. .


How did the prisoners in the supposedly secure facilities get the weapons to wreak such bloody havoc? Ecuador is a major transit point of the route that brings cocaine from South America to the Americas and Asia, making it fertile ground for gang fighting. And in this escalating struggle for supremacy, prisons have become a battleground.

a year of violence

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Even before last week’s prison massacre, imprisonment in Ecuador was deadly risky: more than 140 prisoners were murdered in prison in 2021 alone, according to data from the Ecuadorian prison service SNAI. The total death toll is now over 250.

Ecuador’s government has twice declared a state of emergency in the prison system this year – last week, it announced that millions of dollars to upgrade facilities would also be provided to penitents.

The country’s prison system has also experienced a series of leadership changes. September 27 – the date of the latest massacre – also marked the first day in office of the country’s new prison head, Bolivar Garzón. He is the third person nominated for the role this year.

However, analysts doubt that the state of emergency will have a long-lasting effect unless the country tackles deeper causes, including the growing problem of organized crime both in prison and outside.

overcrowded and well armed

Ecuadorian prisons are overcrowded. In July, then-prison chief Eduardo Moncayo told local media that the Littoral Penitentiary was one of the most overcrowded in the country, with more than 5,000 inmates in a more than 5,000 inmates facility.

Such overcrowding is the primary cause of violence, Douglas Duran, director of the United Nations Latin American Institute for the Prevention of Crime (ILANUD), told Granthshala.

“According to our database, Ecuador’s prisons were 140% over capacity in 2019. This is considered a cruel and inhumane treatment for prisoners under UN protocol, and is a chronic problem across the region,” Duran said .

In early September, Granthshala found 30 prisoners sharing a cell for 10 people in the Ibarra Peninsula, a prison facility in northern Ecuador.

“People sleep in the corridors, even if they don’t have mattresses,” said Brian Sanchez, a prisoner in Ibarra.

Adding to that pressure, Ecuadorian prison inmates are also often surprisingly well armed. In Guayaquil, they deployed automatic weapons and even grenades. At Ibarra prison, prison guards told Granthshala they fear being overwhelmed by the growing number of criminals with access to weapons ranging from weapons to explosives.

That level of weapons in the hands of prisoners points to another factor in the excessive bloodshed: the presence of trained and organized criminal groups with sophisticated financial and military capability to smuggle vast quantities of firearms inside the penitentiary. .

General view of the Guayas 1 prison on the outskirts of Guayaquil, Ecuador, retrieved October 1, 2021.

long arms of the mexican cartel

In September, Granthshala gained exclusive access to another prison, the Lacatunga Peninsula. The walls of the pavilions displayed frescoes from the two main gangs that ruled the Ecuadorian underground, Los Lobos and Los Choneros.

These gangs are accused of working in alliance with the two most dangerous Mexican cartels, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and the Sinaloa Cartel, which are at war on Ecuador’s drug trade, according to Mario Pazmino, former chief. Intelligence Unit of the Ecuadorian Army.

According to the figures of 2020 US Drug Enforcement Agency, 74% of the cocaine entering the United States comes from the eastern Pacific Ocean, with the Ecuadorian coast being a major launching point.

“A trend over the past ten years has been the increased presence of Mexican cartels in Ecuador, who are hiring and arming with local gangs to defend their drug corridors,” Pazmino said.

Mexican cartels — which dominate the drug market — hiding and moving cocaine across the border with Colombia are often required to operate physical controls over the area where most of the drug is produced, Pazmino says. This has led to a situation similar to Mexico, where competing cartels are waging an all-out war against the state and each other.

According to preliminary information from local officials, the cause of the riots in Guayaquil last week was a rivalry between two rival groups linked to the drug trade.

To stop the bloodshed in Ecuadorian prisons, authorities should prioritize separating ordinary prisoners from organized crime convicts, using special wings to quell gang recruitment and isolate fighting outbreaks, says Duran. Huh.

An ambulance leaves from the Littoral Penitentiary in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Wednesday, September 29, 2021.

But not all prisons in Ecuador are doing the same: When Granthshala entered Ibarra and the Lacatunga peninsula last month, inmates were divided into separate wings according to the length of their remaining sentence — not the type of crime. which he had done.

“One of the biggest drawbacks of the Ecuadorian prison system is that when you’re dealing with international criminal groups, the security level, the protocols have to be different than usual,” said Stuardo Ralon, commissioner for prisoners and torture prevention. . Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (CIDH).

Unless those populations are isolated from each other, many Ecuadorian prisoners find themselves exposed and unable to escape when the fighting begins.

Over the past few days, the Ecuadorian government has responded to criticism by saying that prison reform is underway and funding is being provided to recruit more prison guards and renovate penitentiaries to better deal with gangs.

Garzon, the head of prisons, did not respond to an interview request from Granthshala.

But the prisoners and their families are clear about the dangers hidden inside Ecuadorian prisons.

Maria Caseira, whose husband died in the Guayaquil riot, said it was no surprise. She said her husband had received death threats in the days before the riots broke out.

“He was scared, because someone was telling him that they would kill him, they would cut him to pieces. And not just him, the prisoners were telling the families that this was going to happen. He was a thief, I’m not going to lie, but he wasn’t the killer, and now he’s dead,” Casierra told Granthshala.

Last month a prisoner in the Lacatunga Peninsula, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, told Granthshala that his only recourse was to hide.

“I’ve been in three riots already, but let me tell you: I have nothing to do with the fight. All I do is shelter in my cell and wait,” he said.

Nearby, another echoed: “Sometimes, I feel like a target in those circumstances…”

Additional reporting from Florencia Trucco and Abel Alvarado.


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