With Ecuador having suffered yet another round of attacks against authorities and prisoners, the government’s default strategy of transferring gang members from one prison to another seems to be fueling the violence.
On November 4, President Guillermo Lasso extended a state of emergency to the province of Santo Domingo de las Tsáchilas. The measure had been declared earlier in the week in the southern province of Guayas and the northern province of Esmeraldas. Part of the measures included in the state of emergency has been the transfer of hundreds of prisoners from Litoral prison in Guayaquil, which has been the site of repeated violence.
Prison transfers are at the heart of the problem. Pamphlets rejecting prison transfers have been left outside the offices of Ecuadorean media, seemingly by the Lobos and Tiguerones, both large groups which make up one of the largest gang federations in the country.
Addressed to President Lasso and the national prison service (Servicio Nacional de Atención Integral a Personas Adultas Privadas de la Libertad – SNAI), the pamphlet stated that “if you try and touch our people who are in wings 8 and 9 of Litoral Penitentiary [in Guayaquil], be aware we will use our full logistical power … all the weapons at our disposal and all our troops.”
The violence began on November 1 after Ecuador’s national prison service transferred over 1,000 people imprisoned at the Litoral prison in the southern city of Guayaquil. The transfers were an attempt to reduce overcrowding, according to an SNAI press release.
While this violence stemmed from a large-scale transfer, other massacres have happened following key leaders being moved. In May, 44 people were killed in a massacre at the Bellavista prison close to Quito, InSight Crime previously reported. Alexander Quesada, alias “Ariel,” leader of the Lobos gang, ordered the attack on the leader of the rival R7 gang, Marcelo Anchundia. Anchundia had been transferred to Bellavista just days before the riot.
Ariel and Anchundia were imprisoned at Turi penitentiary near Cuenca just a month before, where a separate riot ended with 20 casualties. After the violence, both men requested transfers, and authorities moved Anchundia to Bellavista, prompting the May massacre.
And after the Turi prison massacre, authorities decided to send five people who participated in the attack to the infamous La Roca prison. This decrepit maximum-security facility closed in 2013. Despite Ecuador’s advisory commission on prisons (Comisión de Diálogo Penitenciario y Pacificación) deeming the prison entirely unsuitable to house prisoners, the facility reopened in April 2022.
For Ramiro Ávila Santamaría, a law professor specializing in criminal policy at Simón Bolívar Andean University in Ecuador, the country’s prison system has already failed. According to him, the police have ceded control of prisons to gang leaders in exchange for information about drug trafficking.
“But in striking deals with criminal gangs, [the police] has lost the ability to control prison violence,” he explained.
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While they traffic cocaine from the Colombian border to ports across the country and control entire neighborhoods, Ecuador’s most significant criminal groups use prisons as their operational headquarters.
In a July 2022 report, Human Rights Watch criticized Ecuador’s seeming inability to handle prisons where detainees “in pre-trial detention or sentenced for minor crimes” are forced to cooperate and join gangs to remain safe or access basic supplies. It also spoke of how “members of criminal organizations in detention … coordinated criminal behavior with gang members” on the outside.
Due to this reliance on controlling the physical space and the human resources inside prisons, any disruption to this control is met with overwhelming force. Most of this violence has been internal to the organizations, with gang fighting gang in an ongoing internecine war of rapidly shifting alliances and enmities.
The arrival or removal of top leaders, whose absence weakens a gang’s control, has often preceded violence. Evidence of that is clear by looking at the Lobos and R7 rivalry and the riot in Turi prison, where 20 inmates were killed.
But when threats to gang control of prisons increase, such as when a massive number of prisoners are moved at once, violence may target police and security forces, as was the case in Guayaquil on November 1.
This is worsened by prisoners being moved between a handful of maximum-security prisons, including Litoral in Guayaquil, Turi in Cuenca, Bellavista in Santo Domingo de Los Tsáchilas, and the Esmeraldas provincial prison.
“In the short-term, mega-prisons must be divided into smaller, controllable places, with a number of guards sufficient for the number of prisoners,” explained Ávila Santamaría, adding that police must stop rewarding information by allowing gang members to carry weapons or control prisons. In the medium term, preventing the jailing of those in pre-trial detention or those found guilty of non-violent crimes would also help avoid overcrowding.
But government attempts to create new facilities have not been easy. The reopening of La Roca, the insalubrious facility in Guayaquil, has not been a success.
Prisoners accused of participating in riots have been held in solitary confinement there in miserable conditions. “Gang leaders hate being taken to La Roca. This can cause new riots,” Mario Pazmiño, Ecuador’s director of military intelligence, told Primicias.
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