The prison population in Ecuador has risen dramatically in the past four years, a phenomenon tied to the overuse of preventive detention, but also likely linked to the country's ever-growing importance as a drug transit nation.
In October 2007, the country registered 19,500 prisoners, which the country's prosecutor general called a "record number," according to El Comercio. The Organization of American States (OAS) reported a 2007 total of 18,675 prisoners,
By 2009, the total number of prisoners in Ecuador had dropped to 10,881, according to OAS figures. Since then, the prison population has shot up again, reaching 24,203 prisoners as of October 2013, reported El Comercio.
Just taking El Comercio's numbers, this represents a 122 percent increase on the population of four years ago, and is 96 percent higher than the current official capacity of the system, 12,338. (See El Comercio's graphic below)
Professor Jaime Vintimilla of the San Francisco University in Quito said the growing prison population was related to the excessive use of preventive detention measures for suspects who had not yet been convicted. As of December 2012, 37 percent of Ecuador's prisoners were pre-trial detainees, according to figures from the International Centre for Prison Studies.
InSight Crime Analysis
The overpopulation of prisons is a regional phenomenon in Latin America, and has led to major human rights concerns and a lack of control over the prison systems in countries including Mexico, Venezuela and El Salvador. This is often connected to excessive and lengthy pre-trial detention periods, failings in the justice system and overly harsh penalties for minor crimes.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Prisons
However, in Ecuador the growing prison population is likely influenced by another factor: its status as a major transit nation for illicit drugs. Despite the dip in 2009, the overall growth in the number of prisoners has coincided with increased cocaine seizures in recent years, which rose from 14.8 tons in 2010, according to the US State Department, to 53 tons this year (through November 2013).
The country has also become a veritable United Nations of crime. The most recent police operations in various of the country's ports in the last few days resulted in a haul of over 900 kilos of cocaine and the arrest of 10 suspects, including Colombians, Cubans and a Chinese national, reported AFP.
While pre-trial detention is clearly an important factor affecting Ecuador's prison system, the presence of transnational criminal groups and the country's use as a drug transit point is also a likely contributor to the rising prison population.