Ecuador is reeling from its worst-ever prison massacre, but the factors that led to this situation could well be replicated in other countries across the region.
On September 28, fighting broke out at a prison in Guayaquil between two large gangs, the Choneros and the Lobos. Two major riots took place during the day, leading to at least 116 inmates losing their lives, according to official figures.
Images on social media showed grisly scenes, including bodies piled up against walls and corpses with severed heads and limbs.
This was the worst prison massacre yet in Ecuador, which is facing an escalating crisis of violence between its major gangs, largely in Guayaquil. In February, coordinated attacks by four gangs, including the Lobos, against the Choneros at three prisons across Ecuador’s second city saw 75 inmates murdered. On July 21, another 21 people were killed at prisons in Guayaquil and Cotopaxi, again linked to gang rivalries.
President Guillermo Lasso has declared a state of emergency for all prisons in the country.
These massacres seem to reflect a larger pattern of growing criminal sophistication in Ecuador. As InSight Crime has reported, over a third of Colombian cocaine now moves through Ecuador on its way to American and European markets.
This has sparked a scramble for the country’s gangs to try and claim drug trafficking routes from the border with Colombia and control over exit points such as the port of Guayaquil. This has, in turn, led to a rapid rise in weapons trafficking into the country, as well as a spate of execution-style murders.
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In just two years, Ecuador has gone from a penitentiary system with middling levels of violence to regularly seeing some of the worst prison massacres in Latin America.
In the first half of 2019, 19 prisoners were killed across Ecuador’s prison system. In 2020, some 50 homicides occurred inside the country’s jails. In 2021, the figure now stands at over 300.
There is little sign that the government has any plan in place to staunch the bloodshed.
The only countries with comparable outbreaks of prison violence in recent years have been Brazil and Venezuela. In Brazil’s northern city of Manaus, gang warfare has seen dozens of inmates killed in gruesome conditions. In Venezuela, a collapsing economy, a lack of any government support and the coronavirus pandemic saw prison killings skyrocket in 2020.
The difference lies in how rapidly the situation deteriorated in Ecuador. Venezuela’s multiple crises have sapped the country’s national security for years, while Brazil’s gangs have grown over decades.
In early 2020, InSight Crime warned that the amount of cocaine passing through the country, the converging interests of Colombian, Mexican and European organized crime and the sophistication of domestic gangs could lead to a “sustained increase in Ecuador’s murder rate.”
That has come to pass shockingly quickly.
And other countries could follow suit, for several reasons.
Firstly, overpopulation is a major contributing factor to prison violence but Ecuador is far from the worst offender. Ecuador’s prisons are at approximately 130 percent of their capacity, according to the Associated Press in July, the same level as Uruguay. In Haiti, this stands at over 450 percent, in El Salvador and Guatemala, over 330 percent, in Bolivia, over 250 percent, according to World Prison Brief statistics in 2019.
Secondly, a wider range of organized crime groups are able to maintain their power and influence behind bars. The likes of the MS13 and Barrio 18 in El Salvador or the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) in Brazil have long run complex, transnational criminal organizations and recruited new members inside prison. But more groups are joining their ranks.
In Ecuador, the Choneros and the Lagartos have contested control of the country’s main prisons, even creating or recruiting other gangs to work for them in specific penitentiaries. However, this fragmentation of power appears to have driven much of the violence in Ecuadorean prisons this year, including the most recent massacre, as smaller gangs take on their former masters.
Similar dynamics have been seen in other countries. In Paraguay, the Rotela Clan has morphed from being a gang focused on selling crack in poor neighborhoods of Asunción into a gang capable of orchestrating violence across several prisons against the PCC.
In Argentina, the country’s most sophisticated criminal actor, the Monos, saw most of their leaders jailed in 2018. But since then, they have continued to fend off rivals muscling in on the city of Rosario and even kept up attacks on the homes and offices of judges overseeing cases against them. The group’s leader even had an unmonitored phone line in his cell.
Third, prison gang rivalries are leading to regular outbreaks of violence across the region. In Ecuador, the Choneros, Lobos and other rivals are fighting with more sophisticated arsenals for control of a greater drug trafficking flow through the country. In Paraguay, the Rotela Clan and the PCC have fought on and off, with a number of prisoners dying each time.
In Panama, gangs once focused on moving drugs through the country for larger groups are now running sophisticated trafficking operations of their own from prison. In December 2019, the country saw its own worst prison massacre, with 15 inmates killed due to infighting inside the Bagdad gang.
And with cocaine production and trafficking around an all-time high, others could follow Ecuador’s precipitous downfall.
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