An ongoing gang war in Ecuador’s prisons has made 2020 the bloodiest year on record for inmates, underscoring how the country’s penitentiary system cannot contain the escalating conflict among an increasing number of gang factions.
On December 6, a battle broke out between two gangs that left six dead and 12 wounded in the Esmeraldas Center for Male Inmates (Centro de Privados de Libertad de Varones de Esmeraldas – CRSVE), according to El Universo. The clash raised the number of homicides in the country’s prisons this year to a record 43 -- an uptick from the 32 in 2019 and a major jump from the 11 in 2018, Plan V reported.
The two groups battling it out in the Esmeraldas prison were Los Tiguerones and Los Gánster Negros, branches of two of Ecuador’s largest gangs, Los Choneros and Los Lagartos, which have warred in Ecuador’s streets and in its prisons.
Authorities responded to the riot by deploying the military to create a security perimeter outside the prison’s fence, by carrying out searches of cells, and by removing 46 of the more dangerous inmates from the main pavilions, who are to be later transferred to Guayaquil’s Litoral prison.
The measures are similar to those imposed in the Litoral prison in August, when the most deadly prison riot in Ecuador’s recent history, between Los Choneros and Los Lagartos, left 11 inmates dead and 15 people wounded, including guards. Subsequent searches discovered a high-tech rifle, eight pistols and over 500 knives in the prison.
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The criminal fragmentation and dispersal across the penitentiary system of Ecuador’s biggest prison gangs has resulted in vicious new proxy wars, with smaller offshoots facing off against rivals.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, each Ecuadorian prison tended to be dominated by a few prison gang bosses who kept levels of conflict relatively low while they made money controlling contraband flows.
Subsequent and ongoing attempts by authorities to break up these hierarchies by relocating gang leaders and dangerous inmates to other penitentiaries have only succeeded in extending their presence to more prisons, where they have birthed new offshoots.
The previously centralized gangs have fragmented into violent factions, spurring an all-out war across Ecuador’s penitentiary system. To date, Los Choneros appear to be winning, bolstered by alliances with groups such as Los Lobos and by the announcement in June 2020 of the early release of gang leader Jorge Luis Zambrano, alias “Rasquiña.”
Their two big rivals are Los Cubanos and Los Lagartos, whose confusion in press reports suggest one may be an offshoot of the other. For example, El Universo reports that the late William Poveda, alias “El Cubano," headed up Los Lagartos, when he is clearly known as the former leader of Los Cubanos.
One theory has it that Los Lagartos began as contract killers for both Los Cubanos and Los Choneros before establishing themselves as a third entity. Either way, both groups have been hard hit in recent years: El Cubano was decapitated in a prison riot in June 2019 and Los Lagartos next leader, alias “El Gorras,” died of coronavirus in June 2020.
The conflict is facilitated by prison corruption at the highest levels. In October 2020, the director of the Litoral prison, Héctor Reyna Vivar, was arrested for suspected corruption and organized crime involvement, and he now faces three investigations, according to Plan V, including one into his role in the aforementioned early release of the Los Cubanos leader. Plan V also reports that two other prison directors have also been dismissed this year for misconduct.