A powder keg of tensions among gangs exploded in Ecuador's prisons in a series of bloody clashes that left at least 75 inmates dead, in what officials are calling the worst prison riots in the country's history.
On February 23, coordinated attacks took place at three large prisons in Guayaquil, Cuenca and Latacunga, seemingly organized by a number of gangs targeting members of Los Choneros following the murder of their leader last December.
According to statistics by Ecuador's prison service, SNAI, 34 prisoners were killed at two prisons in Guayaquil, 33 in Cuenca and eight in Latacunga. These three facilities reportedly account for 70 percent of the country's entire prison population.
Gruesome videos of mutilated bodies and severed limbs circulated on Twitter, while family members spoke to the press outside prison walls, demanding officials provide news and a list of the deceased.
The violence was begun by an alliance of four gangs: Los Pipos, Los Tiguerones, Los Chone Killers and Los Lobos. All four were targeting Los Choneros, the country's largest domestic criminal group, sources within the police and SNAI stated.
SNAI's director of rehabilitation, Edmundo Moncayo, told a press conference that, on February 22, police entered the Litoral prison in Guayaquil and seized weapons belonging to Los Choneros, which they were about to use to kill the leaders of the other four gangs.
In response, according to Moncayo, the gangs launched a pre-emptive attack to thwart Los Choneros, a group that had already been left weakened after its leader, Jorge Luis Zambrano, alias "Rasquiña," was shot dead while eating at a restaurant last December.
How authorities will react is uncertain after years of a topsy-turvy prison strategy. In June 2019, the government created a new project to overhaul the penitentiary system, focused on improving resources and infrastructure within prisons and redesign penitentiaries to reduce the risks of violence.
But in between February and May 2020, the Finance Ministry cut the project's budget on three separate occasions, ultimately lowering its financing by over 70 percent, according to Primicias.
However, violence is facilitated by corruption at the highest levels. In October 2020, the director of the Litoral prison in Guayaquil, Héctor Reyna Vivar, was arrested for suspected corruption and organized crime involvement, according to Plan V. He allegedly helped a top gang leader secure early release. Two other prison directors were dismissed this year for misconduct.
InSight Crime Analysis
Ecuador had seen concerning outbreaks of violence in its prisons in recent months but the coordination and breadth of this week's massacres represent an unprecedented escalation.
Much like Paraguay, Ecuador must now be added to a sad list of Latin American countries, whose prison systems are becoming increasingly dangerous, with dozens dying in regular outbreaks of violence.
However, this backlash was predictable. Over the last decade, Los Choneros rose to become a group with national influence, controlling drug trafficking routes between Colombia and Ecuador's Pacific ports and with a heavy presence inside the country's main prisons.
Offshoot gangs loyal to Los Choneros sprung up inside different prisons, including Los Tiguerones, Los Chone Killers and Los Lobos. Recently, all these gangs had been united in a turf war inside and outside jail against Los Lagartos.
The death of Zambrano last December splintered this fragile criminal edifice. Only one man with no known gang connections has been arrested for the crime.
Since then, no natural replacement had emerged to run Los Choneros. Media reports, citing intelligence from the police, had pointed to a face-off between three men, alias "Fito," a close ally of Zambrano, alias "JR," a top Choneros commander, and alias "Ben 10," believed to be the head of the Chone Killers.
It is uncertain how many of the dead are members of Los Choneros and the group's national sway may allow them to recover and retaliate. Either way, this is unlikely to be the final chapter in Ecuador's worst gang war to date.