Ecuador’s prison system has been operating in crisis mode for three years. Beginning in 2019, 24 prisoners were killed in overcrowded prisons holding over 38,000 prisoners which was designed and built to hold 27,000. That number soared to 103 deaths in 2020.
The main problem is alleged to be rival gangs vying for supremacy in the chronically overcrowded system. Contention for power passed the boiling point in December 2020 when one of the leaders of Los Choneros, reputedly Ecuador’s largest gang, was killed just months after his release from prison.
On Tuesday, February 23, 2021, simultaneous riots occurred in the maximum security areas of three of the country’s largest prisons, currently warehousing 70% of the prisoner census.
A total of 79 prisoners were killed in the donnybrooks, approaching in a single day the number of prisoner deaths recorded in 2020. It took 400 extra police officers to quell spillover riots in 2 of Guayaquil’s prisons on Wednesday, February 24.
The prison in Latacunga reported eight deaths. The prison in the country’s third largest city of Cuenca reported 34 deaths. The country’s west coast city of Guayaquil reported 37 deaths. Video obtained by Al Jazeera showed police and soldiers stopping prisoners as they leapt from high walls and forced open prison doors in attempts to gain their freedom.
The following day President Lenin Moreno began sending sympathy messages to surviving family members and promising justice for the victims through an imposition of strict accountability. Initially placing primary responsibility for the riots on prison overcrowding, not enough guard personnel and a shortage of resources; Moreno later tweeted, “What happened yesterday is no coincidence. It was organized from outside the prison, orchestrated by those who are in dispute over leadership and drug trafficking across our national territory,” adding “It was a terrible day for our country.”
Those prisons maximum security areas hold the drug traffickers Moreno referred to, along with kidnapping and murder convictees as well as other violent prisoners. Despite COVID-19 commutations, at the time of the riots the prisoner census was close to 38,000 crowded into a system meant for 27,000.
United Nations officials were quick to take notice. That organization’s representatives insisted that “a prompt and impartial investigation be held” and called for a “corresponding sanction to those responsible,” for the fatal riots. Uprisings, riots and murders are common through Latin American prisons due to widespread corruption, overcrowding and ineffective judiciaries.
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