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Ecuador’s Prison System in Catastrophic Crisis

by Ed Lyon

After a riot in Ecuador’s El Turi prison left 20 prisoners dead on April 4, 2022, Interior Minister Patricio Castillo responded with a vow to “drain the cesspit” that his nation’s prisons have become. But how exactly?

Castillo promised to strip prison benefits from the unnamed ringleaders, whom he also warned had been identified. At the time, however, jail officials had yet to disarm any of the rebellious prisoners.

That kind of cheap tough-talk has marked the government’s response to a prison system in crisis, one which reported 320 prisoner deaths in 2021 alone. In a system holding 39,000 prisoners, that’s a death rate in excess of 820 per 100,000 prisoners. By comparison, the death rate in U.S. prisons in 2021 was 330 per 100,000 in state prisons and 259 per 100,000 in federal prisons, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.  

Ecuador is a country of 17.7 million people located between Peru and Columbia, and it is often considered a Shangri-La for drug traffickers because of its many seaports and porous borders. But its prisons are more dystopian: Their 39,000 prisoners represent 30% more than they were designed to hold.

Making matters worse, of 4,500 guard positions there are 3,000 vacant, leaving just 1,500 to oversee 65 prisons.

Overcrowding or short-staffing either one is a big problem, but together the results can be catastrophic. Add to that in Ecuador widespread corruption facilitating the introduction of knives, machetes, firearms and even explosives into prisons—many housing rival gangs fighting to establish supremacy—and the word ‘riot’ fails to adequately describe the chaos.

A total of 79 prisoners died during uprisings in February 2021 at four prisons in the Guayas, Azuay and Cotopaxi provinces, which hold almost 70% of the country’s prisoners.

Another 21 died during clashes at two prisons in July 2021.

On September 28, 2021, a riot between rival gangs at the Guayas prison complex, which is known as Litoral Penitentiary, involved explosives and firearms and left 119 dead.

Another four died there the next month.

The month after that, on November 14, 2021, the same prison again erupted in violence that claimed another 68 lives.

The spate of violence prompted President Guillermo Lasso to declare a state of emergency for the entire prison system as he placed blame for the deadly violence on “criminal groups” that he said were “attempting to convert prisons into a battleground for power disputes,” as well as “drug-trafficking mafias who want to ‘take control of all the country’s prisons.’”

In addition to the bluster, Lasso has taken some concrete and positive steps, earmarking $24 million for prison system upgrades. On October 21, 2021, prison system chief Bolivar Garzon announced that as many as 2,000 prisoners were being considered for early parole, commutations and pardons, with foreign nationals to be deported, all in an effort to ease overcrowding.  

Sources: China Global TV, CNN, International Business Times, Reuters

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