Ecuador has seen yet another large-scale prison massacre, with at least 44 prisoners killed during a riot at a jail west of Quito, in a cycle of violence that offers little hope that this will be the last such slaughter.
On May 9, members of the Lobos gang attacked their rivals, the R7, at the Bellavista prison in the central province of Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas, in order to kill a senior R7 leader who had just been transferred there, according to Ecuadorean media, Primicias, citing sources within the country’s prison service (Servicio Nacional de Privados de Libertad - SNAI).
An unspecified number of prisoners had escaped during the riot, said authorities, adding that by the evening 112 escapees had been recaptured and a further 108 were still not located.
Gruesome videos circulated on social media, showing bodies piled up in a courtyard inside the prison, with floors awash in blood.
The attack was allegedly ordered by Alexander Quesada, alias “Ariel,” leader of the Lobos, one of Ecuador’s largest gangs, according to sources within SNAI. Its intended target was Marcelo Anchundia, leader of the rival R7. Anchundia had been transferred to Bellavista a few days prior to the riot.
The animosity between these two groups was reportedly behind another massacre earlier this year. On April 3, 20 inmates were brutally killed at the prison of Turi in the southern city of Cuenca. Both Ariel and Anchundia were jailed in Turi at the time.
At the time, Interior Minister Patricio Carrillo directly blamed the Lobos and R7 for the violence. Following the April massacre, Ariel and Anchundia were moved to a new maximum-security prison in Guayaquil. However, both men then formally requested transfers as they were still allegedly receiving death threats, according to Primicias.
This time, the two were separated and sent to different institutions. However, Anchundia landed in Bellavista, where the Lobos are the largest player, allowing Ariel to order the hit.
Following this latest rampage, it appears Anchundia and other gang leaders have been transferred yet again from Bellavista.
InSight Crime Analysis
At this early stage, two major conclusions can be drawn from this massacre: Ecuador’s fractious gang wars continue to grow more complex and violent, and the government seems baffled as to how to stop them.
The bitter rivalry between the R7 and the Lobos is the latest in a seemingly endless cycle of fragmentation and betrayal among Ecuadorean gangs. The Lobos are Ecuador’s second-largest gang, with thousands of members across the country, many of them in prison. Last year, the Lobos led a coalition of smaller gangs to attack the Choneros, a larger rival, sparking a series of prison massacres and leaving over 320 inmates dead in 2021.
The R7, a much smaller gang based in Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas, originally lent their support to the Lobos but apparently balked at Ariel “humiliating and confronting other groups and abusing his power,” according to Primicias. The Turi massacre in April was the first chapter in this new rivalry, with Anchundia leading an attack against the Lobos.
“There are small structures that submit to the will of this larger group (Lobos) but this conflict was due to the fragmentation and the power being taken up by the R7,” said Carrillo, Ecuador’s interior minister, at the time.
Continuously bouncing gang leaders between prisons is no solution. Within days of being transferred for the second time in a month, Lobos leader Ariel was allegedly able to instigate violence on a colossal scale against a rival in a different institution.
With around 400 prisoners brutally killed in 18 months, and despite army deployments, special commissions and a new maximum-security prison, the government seems no closer to resolving this issue.