A vicious gang war behind bars erupted this week, killing 116 inmates and injuring another 80 in an Ecuadorian prison in one of the deadliest prison riots in history, officials said.
The latest conflict began with explosions and gunshots at the Litoral prison in the coastal city of Guayaquil on Tuesday. It took Ecuadorian police five hours to regain control over parts of the prison and when they did, they discovered a dreadful scene—at least six people had been decapitated among the dead.
At first, authorities believed that the dead numbered around 30, but 24 hours after quelling the riot, they made a startling discovery. Inside another prison wing were dozens of additional bodies. More were found in ventilation ducts, and authorities revised the death toll to well over a hundred.
The bloodbath was Ecuador’s worst prison riot ever, surpassing an outbreak earlier this year when 79 prisoners lost their lives in three separate Ecuadorian prisons during coordinated riots on February 23.
Throngs of the inmates’ relatives arrived outside of the Litoral prison, waiting for authorities to identify the dead.
The ongoing conflict is believed to be connected to the December 2020 death of Jorge Luis Zambrano, aka JL or Rasquiña. Zambrano was gunned down in a shopping mall in his home city of Manta six months after being released from a prison in Ecuador.
He’d been serving a 20-year prison sentence for a 2011 murder which was reduced to eight years after he successfully appealed, arguing that he was not the gunman but the co-author of the killing. Before his release, Zambrano had allegedly been the boss of the country's largest prison gang—Los Choneros.
The death of Zambrano caused infighting in Los Choneros leadership, and left a power void that spurred breakaway groups and other ambitious prison gangs to move in to try and fill it. Prison gangs in Ecuador and their associates on the outside are believed to be involved in the country’s lucrative cocaine smuggling trade, and officials say they have connections to Mexican drug cartels.
Relatives of inmates of the Litoral prison await news about the identities of the 116 dead after gang wars broke out on September 28. (Photo: Gerardo Menoscal/Agencia Press South/Getty Images)
President Guillermo Lasso confirmed the death toll on Wednesday and declared a state of emergency in the country’s prison system. He said that it was aimed at recovering control and speeding up investment in plans to strengthen security in the country’s prisons.
“It’s regrettable that the prisons are being turned into a territory for a fight over power between criminal gangs,” Lasso said in a news conference on Wednesday evening.
He described the violence as “very bad, very sad,” and added, “What concerns me right now is to preserve the life of those who are imprisoned.”
As the violence erupted, Pablo Arosemena, the state governor of Guayas where Litoral is located, arrived on the scene. Video showed him greeting prison cooks with thumbs up as they sprinted out of the facility after being rescued by police.
In a press conference outside the prison, Arosemena said that “citizens can feel calm” because authorities had “reestablished order.”
“The presence of the state and the law must be felt,” he said.
But the fighting broke out again Wednesday, and authorities called in military reinforcements to retake the prison.
Locals living near the Litoral prison have become fed up with the state’s continued failure to maintain order. Prominent Ecuadorian Newspaper El Universo published images reportedly shared in an outraged neighborhood Whatsapp group of a stray bullet that had come through the ceiling of a resident’s home.
Coffins for the bodies of inmates killed in a riot at the Litoral penitentiary sit on a truck out side the morgue in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Wednesday, September 29, 2021. (PHOTO: Angel DeJesus/AP)
For the neighbors, insecurity at the prison has become a constant threat.
On July 21, another massacre took place at the Litoral prison when eight inmates were reportedly stabbed to death while working in the penitentiary garden; 14 prisoners died in a different prison near the capital of Quito that same day.
The next day, Lasso declared a first state of emergency in the country’s prison system and appointed a retired colonel, Fausto Cobo, as the national penitentiary director.
Upon taking charge in July, Cobo tweeted that “the Prison System is controlled by narco criminals who have turned prisons into war zones between cartels and mafias due to disputes of command, control, markets and territories to carry out their criminal activities.”
Just over a week after the July murders and Cobo’s appointment, explosions broke out in the Litoral prison. When authorities conducted raids afterward, they discovered numerous large knives, handguns and hundreds of bullets, along with makeshift grenades. But apparently, they didn't find them all, as this week’s beheadings, explosions and shootouts show.
One day before the Litoral riot, Cobo was reassigned to become the director of Ecuador’s Strategic Intelligence Center, after just two months in charge of prisons. Another retired colonel, Bolívar Garzón, was appointed in his place.
“This is an attack on the state,” Cobo told the news conference on Wednesday. “We are confronting something out of the ordinary.”
While speaking with Ecuadorian radio station FM Mundo on Wednesday, Garzón explained why he asked for an army tank to station itself by the prison gates to maintain control.
“The situation is critical. We have family members outside that might want to enter, and we can’t allow that,” said Garzón. “Or maybe we could see another conflict, riot, mutiny, whatever you want to call it. We’re taking every measure so that does not happen again.”