Officials in Ecuador have deployed armed forces to various prisons around the country in an effort to improve security within them, underscoring the consequences of leaving organized crime groups to thrive unchecked within the penitentiary system.
Ecuador's Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner announced on May 14 that members of the Andean nation’s armed forces have been sent to reinforce security outside of the country’s prisons while police reinforcements will tackle increased security inside the prisons.
The move comes as two of the country’s gangs, known as “Los Choneros" and "Los Cubanos," are waging a battle for control of drug trafficking and other illicit activities on the streets and within a number of the country’s regional prisons in Latacunga, Guayas and Turi, El Telégrafo reported.
This gang war appears to stretch back several years with regular flare-ups of violence. Earlier this month, the mother of suspected Cubanos member Darwin Corozo received an audio recording indicating that her son was going to be murdered. A short time later, two of Corozo's rivals in the Choneros stabbed him 31 times and killed him at the regional prison in Latacunga, just south of the capital Quito, according to El Telégrafo.
SEE ALSO: Ecuador News and Profile
A career criminal by the name of Jorge Luis Zambrano, alias “Rasquiña,” is thought to be the head of the Choneros’ operations. He has been in jail since 2011 on a variety of charges ranging from extortion and kidnapping to arms trafficking and murder.
On the other hand, William Poveda, alias “El Cubano,” is believed to be the leader of the Cubanos. His brother Walter, alias “El Caimán,” murdered a prison director in 2005 before meeting the same fate in 2012 at the hands of his rivals in a prison in Santo Domingo.
InSight Crime Analysis
The recent military deployment to prisons across Ecuador in an effort to restore order highlights the consequences officials are now facing after failing to address a prison problem -- much like other governments in Latin America -- that has been on the radar for years.
The Choneros are not a new organized crime group, nor are the group’s clashes with rival organizations contesting their criminal control inside and outside prison walls.
For more than a decade, the group has spread terror throughout the small town of Chone in Ecuador’s Pacific province of Manabí through violent murders carried out by hired hitmen, extortion, kidnapping and other crimes.
Primarily engaged in drug trafficking and allegedly acting as an armed wing for a Colombian criminal group, according to La Hora, the Choneros play a crucial role in this coastal province, which is increasingly becoming an important departure point for international drug shipments.
But with several of the group’s leaders serving time in jail, a number of internal conditions have allowed the Choneros to continue operating and exerting control over their rivals.
To start, Ecuador’s prisons are severely understaffed and their prison guards underpaid, a combination that has fostered corruption. Across the country, there are only 1,500 guards for more than 40,000 inmates, or about one guard for every 27 prisoners. What’s more, prison guards earn a monthly salary of just $520, a rate some guards have been paid for 15 years, according to data from Ecuador’s national service for prisoners reported by El Telégrafo.
Such conditions lend themselves to official corruption. So far this year, 21 prison guards have been expelled from various penitentiaries across the country for helping inmates smuggle drugs, alcohol and other contraband into prisons.
That said, inmates are not afforded much support either, which could be vital in steering them away from engaging in criminal activity. Almost half of the country’s inmates are housed in prisons that are overcrowded. In addition, Ecuador’s prison system lacks effective professional training programs or education classes to help rehabilitate inmates, according to official data reported by El Telégrafo.
Such issues are not exclusive to the South American nation. Prison systems in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, among others, have suffered with similar problems. In some cases, prisons in Latin America are under the de facto rule of criminal groups, such as in Venezuela. This phenomenon has caused the region’s prisons to become breeding grounds for organized crime groups, rather than rehabilitation centers that aim to reintegrate inmates back into society.
But Ecuador’s prison issues have not yet reached the dire state of others in the region. Authorities still have a chance to reverse this trend. This is especially true if they look towards systems put in place in countries like Belize, where inmates have access to addiction treatment services, schooling and a variety of vocational courses to put them in a better position to positively impact society upon their release.