Crime & Justice

Ecuador trying to unravel prison massacre circumstances

By Elias L. Benarroch

Quito, Feb 24 (efe-epa).- Ecuadorian authorities are trying to understand the circumstances surrounding the massacre on Tuesday inside four of the country’s prisons, while judicial officials are continuing their work to decipher what occurred without ruling out – experts say – that the deeds could be drug-related.

Meanwhile, dozens of relatives of the 79 inmates who died gathered Wednesday morning in front of the Guayaquil prison and the city morgue to ask for the remains of the loved ones who lost their lives in the country’s worst-ever such series of incidents.

At the doors of the prison and morgue, the bodies of 37 of the dead from two prisons were laid out and more than 100 people jammed the site starting early Wednesday morning to try and obtain whatever information they could get about their relatives.

The incidents on Tuesday at the prisons have shocked the country, which – although prison riots have occurred in Ecuador in the past – never imagined a bloodbath like the one that unfolded.

The confrontations came one after another in two Guayaquil facilities, at Turi Prison in Cuenca and Cotopaxi in Latacunga, and prison authorities were unable to do anything to halt the violence.

“We don’t understand the levels human behavior can get to,” Latacunga Mayor Byron Cardenas told reporters, adding that if the inmates are organized and have a significant number of weapons inside the prisons, one cannot imagine what could happen if those inmates were free in society.

Just as in Guayaquil, soldiers and police were deployed on Wednesday at the Latacunga prison, where eight inmates died on Tuesday, a move designed to prevent new riots given that the structure of the prison system is not designed to bring massive violent events under control, with prison personnel being equipped only to deal with small-scale isolated incidents.

“Our system is completely deplorable in this government. The number of prison personnel – the backbone of the system – must be increased,” Jhonny Cadena, a former prison guard, warned at a press conference.

The clashes on Tuesday were coordinated simultaneously at four different spots, organized – authorities believe – by two gangs who, apparently, are vying for control of the prisons and the internal prison economy.

“One group is the Choneros, the armed section of the Sinaloa Cartel, and the other is the Lagartos, who were operating with the New Generation Jalisco Cartel,” Arturo Torres, a criminal researcher and author of books such as “El Juego del Camaleon” (The game of the chameleon) and “Rehenes” (Hostages).

“It’s a dispute over the criminal and drug trafficking market that goes beyond the country’s borders,” he added regarding the main groups although, he said, other minor drug gangs are also involved.

In 2020, the Ecuadorian police seized 130 tons of cocaine, a record haul for the country, where authorities normally had seized an average of 90 tons per year.

Attempting to deal with that organizational and criminal capability is a prison service that has been neglected by successive governments.

“There’s 70 percent deficit of prison guards, with about 1,500 currently, when at least 7,000 are needed,” Ricardo Camacho, the assistant justice secretary and the official in charge of the country’s prisons from 2017-2018.

The SNAI, as Ecuador’s prison service is known, manages more than 60 prison facilities, but on Tuesday its director, Edmundo Moncayo, emphasized that the Guayaquil, Cuenca and Latacunga prisons house 70 percent of the country’s incarcerated population of 38,693.

The prisons, SNAI says, are designed to hold 29,897 inmates, and thus they are currently more than 29 percent overcrowded, but that is not the worst of it.

Because of the weakness of the system, the most organized and powerful criminal bands have managed to establish control within the prisons that Ecuadorian authorities can do little to counteract, not to mention the fact that – according to Torres – the prison system is rife with corruption.

The situation has led mayors, activists and all sorts of other people to request that the most dangerous prisoners be transferred elsewhere.

But the suffering is felt by the relatives, whose incarcerated loved ones have been killed in the violence, and by the inmates who are still alive but caught inside the prisons amid the barbarity.

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