Dolores Ochoa Associated Press Soldiers patrol the streets near the government headquarters in the capital Quito.
France Media Agency in Quito
Prisons in the hands of criminal gangs, streets subjected to the terror of weapons and governments cornered by the power of narcos: Ecuador, once a haven of peace, is once again on the brink and declares itself in “armed conflict internal”.
Less than two months after taking office, young President Daniel Noboa, 36, promised to tackle the country's growing violence linked to drug trafficking and engaged in confrontation open with criminal gangs.
What started the crisis ?
The escape on Sunday from the high security prison of Guayaquil, a large port in the southwest of the country, of the feared leader of the Choneros gang, Adolfo Macias, alias “Fito”, is the starting point of this new episode of violence.
The 44-year-old narco, pictured with long, shaggy hair and a prominent beard during a recent prison transfer, had been serving a 34-year sentence since 2011 for organized crime, drug trafficking and murder.
He disappeared on the eve of a police operation of which he had obviously been informed beforehand. He had already escaped in 2013, but was recaptured after three months.
Two prison officials were arrested after this escape.
On Monday, President Noboa, elected in November on the promise of restoring security in the country, declared a state of emergency.
In another decree on Tuesday, he ordered “the mobilization and intervention of the armed forces and the national police” to “guarantee sovereignty and national integrity against organized crime, terrorist organizations and non-state belligerents.”
What was the gang's response ?
After the escape of “Fito”, several mutinies and hostage-taking of guards affected various prisons, relayed by frightening videos broadcast on social networks showing the captives threatened by the knives of masked inmates and the execution of at least least two guards by gun and hanging.
A total of 125 prison guards and 14 administrative agents are being held hostage in at least five prisons, according to the prison administration, which communicates very little on the subject.
On Tuesday, Fabricio Colon Picole, leader of another powerful gang, that of the Lobos, also escaped.
Also on Tuesday, armed men burst onto the set of a public television station in Guayaquil, taking journalists and employees of the channel hostage until the police intervened.
All the violence since the start of the crisis has left at least ten dead.
The gangs have alliances with foreign organizations like the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel and coordinate their operations from overcrowded prisons under the complicit gaze of guards.
How did Ecuador get here ?
Once a haven of peace in South America, the country is ravaged by violence, with an assassination rate of 46 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2023, the highest in its history.
Analysts believe that this “extreme” violence in the country has intensified under the government of conservative President Guillermo Lasso (2021-2023) who has engaged in a standoff against criminal gangs behind car attacks booby traps, shootings or kidnappings.
Each time these gangs attempted to intimidate Ecuadorians, President Lasso responded with force, placing the country in a state of emergency.
“What we have are three criminal organizations which no longer confront each other, but which confront the State, they have a common enemy”, underlines César Carrion to AFP, researcher at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (Flacso).
President Noboa, who emerged victorious from a presidential race in which one of the main candidates was assassinated, is on an even harder line than that of his predecessor.
He recently announced the construction of high-security prisons on boats and in the middle of the jungle, the strengthening of intelligence and border control, as well as the planned expulsion of more than a thousand foreign detainees.< /p>
The youngest president in Ecuador's history promised an end to the era of criminals “dictating to the government of the day what to do” and took steps to ” take back control” of the prisons.
“The iron fist is now being put in place explicitly and with great legitimacy on the part of the population because they are exhausted and can't take it anymore”, analyzes César Carrion.