‘We are all suffering’: What’s going on inside Ecuador’s prisons? (Al Jazeera)

QUITO, ECUADOR – More than 300 people have been killed inside Ecuador’s prisons so far this year, as a series of violent riots between rival gangs left officials scrambling to find ways to end the bloodshed.

The latest riot took place last week behind the cement walls of Penitenciaria del Litoral, a facility in the coastal city of Guayaquil, a little more than a month after 119 people – all inmates – were killed in the same facility in what was the country’s deadliest prison massacre on record.

Family members have been increasingly anxious since the September killings at Litoral, which prompted the Ecuadorian government to declare a state of emergency and send hundreds of police officers to reinforce the prison.

They say their loved ones face a constant threat of violence inside the facility, while explosions and gunfire also can be regularly seen and heard from outside the compound. Last week, videos surfaced showing some inmates torturing others. The footage was sent to inmates’ families to extort them for money in exchange for their loved one’s safety, several local media outlets reported.

Billy Navarrete, director of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights in Guayaquil, said the families of Litoral inmates are “completely terrified” – both of what is occurring inside the prison, but also of the criminal groups that control the facility.

These groups have networks outside the prison, which the families have said also puts them at direct risk, Navarrete told Al Jazeera.

“The situation is difficult,” said one mother whose son is currently being held behind bars in Guayaquil. She spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity for both her and her son due to fears of retribution from armed groups.

“We are all suffering for the same reason,” she said in a phone interview. “Like all the other mothers in Guayaquil say, [authorities] don’t give information, we don’t know anything, we don’t have access to anything.”

Systemic problems

Security experts in Ecuador have identified 11 armed groups that control the country’s prisons, including Ecuador’s largest, Los Choneros – and also Lagartos, Tiguerones, Lobos, Chone Killers, Fatales, Netas, Aguilas, Fantasmas and Cubanos.

These groups battle for power inside and outside of prisons, seeking control of cocaine routes, as Ecuador has long been a transit hub for drugs leaving to the United States and Europe.

The violence in Ecuadorian prisons increased in 2019 when the leader of Los Cubanos, known by the alias El Cubano, was killed in another Guayaquil prison. Then, in December 2020, the leader of Los Choneros, alias Rasquina, was killed publicly in the coastal city of Manta after being released from prison. Both incidents sparked a series of turf wars over leadership and territory, according to the country’s security experts.

But Navarrete, who has been monitoring Ecuador’s prison system for more than 30 years, said the issue should not be “reduced to gang fighting” alone, as the current surge in violence has been in the making for years.

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(Photo Credit: Reuters)

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