Ecuador riot: Anxious families await news after fighting kills 118 inmates

  • Published
Media caption,

Relatives waited for news after police stormed the jail in Guayaquil where a deadly riot took place

Desperate families have gathered at a jail in Ecuador which police are trying to bring under control after fighting left at least 118 inmates dead.

The battle first broke out on Tuesday, with prisoners using explosives and firearms on each other.

Families are seeking news on loved ones but with some victims decapitated or dismembered, identifying the bodies could take days.

The gang-related violence is the worst in Ecuador's history.

What is happening inside the Guayas prison complex, also known as the Litoral Penitentiary, is unclear.

Officials said on Wednesday the jail was back under their control, but early on Thursday neighbours said they had heard explosions and gunshots.

Late on Thursday, police regained control of the prison following a major operation involving 900 officers and army soldiers. the authorities said.

Police commander Tannya Varela told Reuters the death toll could rise further as security forces work their way through the jail.

"We have not yet completed the intervention in the penitentiary, so it is possible that there are other bodies inside, and some of the injured could die from their wounds," she said.

How did the violence unfold?

The fight first broke out on Tuesday when inmates from one wing of the prison crawled through a hole to gain access to a different wing, where they attacked rival gang members.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Inmates climbed onto the roof of the Litoral prison as a deadly fight unfolded

Police managed to get six cooks, who were trapped in the wing where the fight happened, to safety and only two police officers were injured.

Ecuador's prison director, Bolívar Garzón, said that police had entered the prison on Tuesday and found 24 bodies.

According to Mr Garzón, there was renewed shooting inside the prison overnight Tuesday into Wednesday and as police went through the prison wings one by one, they found scores more bodies, bringing the death toll to 116.

With security forces inside and outside of the jail, families of inmates face an anxious wait.

Some of the relatives said they had been sent photos and video from inside the prison but had been given no official confirmation as to whether their family member was among the victims.

Newspaper El Comercio reported that one woman had recognised her husband in one of the videos. She said he was one of those who had been decapitated.

At the scene: Anxiety, fear and little information

By Blanca Moncada Pesantes, Guayaquil

When Ecuador's President Guillermo Lasso announced that the death toll had risen to 116 from the initial 24, dozens of families rushed to the forensic laboratory where the bodies of the victims are being taken. They want to find out where their loved ones are and if they are still alive.

They have yet to get an answer and their anxiety only increased as explosions could again be heard coming from Guayaquil's biggest prison, a sign that the gang war inside - said to be linked to the drugs trade - had not been brought under control.

Among them is Zenaida Moreira, 50, whose 23-year-old son was sent to the prison two years ago for stealing chairs from a school.

Ms Moreira fears the worst after having seen videos of the carnage inside the jail.

"I don't know if one of the bodies I saw was his. I saw a decapitated head, the face is similar to his, but the authorities are not saying anything."

Who's fighting whom?

The fact that only two police officers have been injured but more than 100 inmates killed strongly suggests this is a war among inmates rather than an attempt at a prison uprising.

Local media are reporting that the brutal killings could have been ordered from outside the prison mirroring a power struggle between Mexican cartels currently under way in Ecuador.

The Litoral Penitentiary holds inmates from Los Choneros, an Ecuadorean gang which is thought to have links with Mexico's powerful Sinaloa drugs cartel.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The prison houses members of rival gangs with links to Mexican drug cartels

But another Mexican criminal group, the Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG), is also trying to forge alliances with Ecuadorean gangs to seize control of drug smuggling routes leading from Ecuador to Central America from its Sinaloa rivals.

The decapitations and the brutal nature of the violence seen inside the Litoral prison are hallmarks of the Mexican cartels, which often kill their rivals in the most gruesome ways to spread further terror.

How did it get so bad?

This most recent prison fight is the deadliest in the history of Ecuador's prison system but there have been a number of brutal confrontations in the past year.

In February, 79 prisoners were killed in simultaneous fights at four jails, one of them Litoral Penitentiary.

Ecuador is a transit country for cocaine smuggled from neighbouring Peru and Colombia, and the powerful Mexican drug cartels are said to operate through local gangs.

Inside jails there are problems with overcrowding and a shortage of guards. Police are often met with prisoners who are heavily armed.

After the latest incident, President Lasso declared a state of emergency in the prison system, which allows officials to suspend certain rights and use the military to regain control.

He also said support would be provided to inmates' relatives.


Related Topics