At least 116 people were killed and 80 injured in an Ecuadorian prison riot that broke out on September 28th. Many bodies were discovered across the Litoral penitentiary in the city of Guayaquil, as security forces fought to retake control from the cartels. The killings were brutal; many people were mutilated and beheaded with chainsaws or machetes. The violence resulted from a struggle between rival Mexican cartels, the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation, that operate drug smuggling routes through local gangs.
Col. Mario Pazmiño, former director of Ecuador’s military intelligence, said, “[T]his kind of depraved violence has grown as gangs fight for control of the prisons.” “[T]he violence; the dismemberment, the decapitation, is a strategy to sow terror among the prisoners to gain territorial control – not just inside the prison but outside.”
Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso announced that there would be a 60-day state of emergency in Ecuador’s prisons. This involves police and army deployment as well as directing $24 million in funds to stabilize prisons. On Wednesday, Lasso said, “[R]egrettably, the prisons have become terrain for disputes for power between gangs.” The state is going to act.”
Itania Villarreal, former director of the state institution for rehabilitation of inmates, said, “[E]xtreme violence has become normalized in the jails.” “[T]here have been the most atrocious and inhumane murders, with decapitations, burnings, even using chainsaws to carry out these acts.”
Villareal blames the situation on authorities not relocating gang members to maximum-security prisons and a prisoner worker shortage for the 39,000 inmates across the country. Overcrowding is also a significant issue, as Ecuador’s 65 facilities are designed for a total capacity of 30,000 persons. Corruption, staffing issues, and the networks of gangs have enabled widespread firearms and ammunition smuggling.
This latest riot marks the single most violent day within the penitentiary system. Riots in February across three prisons, also driven by gang warfare, killed 79. 22 inmates were killed in this prison in July. Prison violence in Ecuador has been a growing problem. The recent massacre leaves the country with a comparable level of violence within their penitentiary system as Brazil and Venezuela. Insight Crime indicates that the growth of organized crime networks in Ecuador, which operate partly through prisons, have fueled the magnitude of recent violence.
In the face of this devastating crisis, it is evident that Ecuador’s prison system needs significant reforms. Overcrowding is one area of the system that needs to be overhauled. Calls for investment into the system by President Lasso are welcome. Conditions in the prison, including overcrowding and corruption, can amplify the violence and disorder. Ensuring there are enough staff in the prisons is crucial, as is ensuring there is an appropriate level of capacity in the system for appropriate prisoner quality of life. While on the one hand capacity could be improved, an important question to ask is that regarding the number of prisoners in the country.
The criminal justice system in Ecuador should be re-evaluated, to ensure that the prisons are used appropriately in proportion to the crimes committed by prisoners. The proliferation and growth of organized transnational criminal networks that conduct business through prisons is a major component of this issue. These criminal organizations must be brought to justice, while actions are taken to address the multiple factors that strengthen the illegal drug trade in the region. That is a difficult task given how vast these networks have become. However, considering the violence that is being witnessed in Ecuador’s prisons in recent years, it is crucial that these systems are disrupted.