The accidental poisoning of 204 inmates in a prison in Ecuador shows deep-seated corruption and overcrowding inside the country’s prison system, where surrender of state control to gangs has left prisoners suffering.
On May 24, 204 inmates fell ill with food poisoning at Ibarra prison in the province of Imbabura, due to severely contaminated food from an external vendor. Taken alone, this case would not seem particularly eye-catching. But it appears to be a symptom of a deeper collapse within Ecuador’s prison system and its surrender to organized crime.
On April 30, a state of emergency was declared in prisons nationwide. Overcrowding has reached 40 percent across all prisons, including an alarming 200 percent level of overcrowding at the prison of Machela, in the southwest province of El Oro.
With the penitentiary system now operating well above its capabilities, a lack of hygiene in food and other perilous conditions are worsening.
A report by Plan V documented severe conditions in the maximum security prison of Latacunga, with inmates suffering from a lack of water and living amongst human excrement. Sick inmates are left without essential care and access to medicines.
Ecuador’s Minister of Defense, Oswaldo Jarrín, has admitted that Ecuador’s prisons are under the influence of at least seven criminal gangs, preventing any real state presence from improving these conditions.
Instead, increasing violence between these gangs led the government to recently deploy the army to secure the area in and around the prisons.
According to the minister, these groups have stated their interest in negotiating “peace,” albeit at a high price. Jarrín explained gang members would stop the violence inside prisons in return for immunity from prosecution once they are released. This proposal was roundly rejected by Ernesto Pazmiño, director of the national service for prisoners.
According to complaints made by officials such as Luis Astudillo, Ecuador’s former deputy director of minimum security prisons, corruption is getting worse. This situation was reached due to high levels of corruption throughout the state, where anyone with money can profit from the criminal underworld inside penitentiaries. “Nothing happens [inside prisons] without them knowing,” said Astudillo.
InSight Crime Analysis
The magnitude of the criminal networks inside Ecuador’s prisons, involving prison guards, police officers and government officials, have made them a ticking time bomb.
While gangs such as Los Choneros or Los Cubanos may dominate prison life, they are focused on criminal economies, not improving living conditions.
One former prison official told InSight Crime on condition of anonymity that drugs and weapons were brought inside prisons by top officials, including prison directors.
A lack of personnel is another crippling problem. According to Sonia Andrade, a former public supervisor of the penitentiary system, a single guard can sometimes be in charge of hundreds of prisoners.
Low salaries are another incentive. According to data from Ecuador’s national service for prisoners, guards earn an average of $520 a month. While this is above the national average, many of them have not received a raise in up to 15 years.
SEE ALSO: Ecuador News and Profile
The former prison official also revealed that guards and police smuggle weapons into prisons, either disguised as service weapons or hidden inside bulletproof vests. Drugs and cellphones can be hidden inside supplies or even inside body cavities. Inspections upon entry are superficial, if carried out at all.
The incentives for guards to take part in these criminal economies are huge. Cell phones can cost between $100 and $4,000, due to inflated prices placed on contraband. This depends on the model, with Blackberry devices most in demand, according to the former official. This is due to Blackberry's messaging system being more secure as it has its own operating system and does not work through apps.
But with the rejection of the gangs’ peace offerings, what steps are being taken? Ecuador has in the past taken innovative steps to “legalize” gangs, thus reducing the rate of homicides and violence.
In the case of this latest crisis, however, the country appears to be struggling on how to respond. To date, besides sending in the military to retake certain prisons, the government has only moved to allow early releases for prisoners having served at least 80 percent of their sentence.