139 guards, officials still captive at Ecuadorian prisons amid violence

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Inmates at five prisons in Ecuador continue to hold some 125 prison guards and 14 administrative officials captive following an unprecedented day of violence, which also saw a group of armed men interrupting a live TV broadcast. In a statement on Wednesday, the country’s jail management agency said the captives were being held at prisons in the provinces of Azuay and Canar (south); Napo (centre-north); Tungurahua; and Cotopaxi (centre), Xinhua news agency reported.

“The National Police and Armed Forces continue to work together” towards their release, the agency added. Major rioting broke out after authorities confirmed on Sunday that Adolfo “Fito” Macias, the country’s major drug trafficker and leader of the criminal gang “Los Choneros”, had escaped from Regional Prison 8 in the southwest city of Guayaquil. The next day, President Daniel Noboa declared a nationwide state of emergency to combat criminal activity, especially in prisons, amid an escalation in violence triggered by narco-terrorist groups vying for control of drug-trafficking routes.

On Tuesday, the violence appeared to spin out of control with explosions going off in a few cities, armed men breaking into the local television station amid a live broadcast, vehicles being set on fire and the abduction of police officers. Following the mass unrest, the President declared Ecuador to be in a state of “internal armed conflict”, allowing the armed forces to be deployed to combat the gangs. Since Monday, police have made 70 arrests. In response to the unprecedented violence, Noboa said on Wednesday that his country is in a “state of war” with “terrorist” criminal groups linked to drug trafficking.

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“We are practically, yes, in a non-international armed conflict. We are fighting for national peace. We are also fighting against terrorist groups that today number more than 20,000 people,” he said in an interview with “Radio Canela” in Quito. The government has identified members of 22 criminal organisations as “terrorists” in an executive order. “When they are terrorists and we live in a state of war, other laws apply. International humanitarian law also applies,” the 36-year-old President who assumed office in November 2023, noted.

The decree “is a message that we are not going to give in, that we are not going to let society die slowly, but that today we are going to fight them, today we are going to provide solutions and soon we are going to bring peace to Ecuadorian families”, he added. Hundreds of soldiers, including in tanks, are currently patrolling the streets of Guayaquil and capital Quito. Across the country, schools have remained closed, with classes taking place online. The latest unrest comes as Ecuador has witnessed a recent spike in violent crime.

Ecuador, a country of approximately 17.5 million people, recorded nearly 3,568 violent deaths from the beginning of 2023 until July, which was an increase of 75 percent over the same period the year prior. The South American nation also shattered records for homicides in 2022, cataloguing a total of 4,603 violent deaths. According to statistics released by the national police, that amounted to nearly 12.6 murders per day.

Presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was also assassinated just ahead of the August 20, 2023 general elections, which led to then President Guillermo Lasso to declare a national state of emergency on August 10 for 60 days. Before he was shot dead, Villavicencio had reported receiving death threats from Adolfo “Fito” Macias, who escaped from prison on Sunday.