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Ecuador’s Escalating Security Crisis: From Prison Riots to Gang Violence




Ecuador, a once relatively peaceful Andean nation, is now witnessing a surge in violent crime, from bloody turf wars between rival gangs to escalating conflicts within its prison system. One of the more recent horrific incidents includes the daylight assassination of Agustin Intriago, mayor of Manta, the country’s sixth largest city, and Ariana Chancay, a young athlete he was talking with on the street.

Key facts include:

  • Over 400 prison inmates have been killed since 2021, with violence spreading across numerous penitentiaries
  • Approximately 96 guards are being held hostage by inmates, with hundreds going on hunger strikes to demand better conditions and protest violence
  • The Ecuadorian government announced a substantial purchase of 24 million gun cartridges in an attempt to fortify security services

A further sign of the deteriorating situation is a days-long uprising at a prison in Guayaquil, resulting in at least 18 deaths, as reported by Ecuador’s attorney general.

Struggles with the Prison System

Ecuador’s prison system, specifically El Litoral, the country’s largest men’s jail, has long been the epicenter of violence. The facility, home to some of the country’s most violent gangs, such as Los Choneros, Los Lobos, Los Tiguerones, and Latin Kings, has witnessed multiple deadly fights. The most horrific incident occurred in September 2021, when 119 prisoners were killed. Despite efforts by authorities to house rival gang members in separate wings, overcrowding has made it difficult to manage and separate warring factions. Recent unrest began in wing eight, primarily occupied by the gang Los Tiguerones, escalating quickly into violent confrontations with rival gang members. This violence has not remained confined to El Litoral. Reports of the deadly fights quickly sparked further unrest across the country, with inmates going on hunger strikes and taking guards hostage in at least six other prisons.

Criminal Organizations and Narcotics Trade

Ecuador’s rising violence is closely linked to its strategic location between two of the world’s largest cocaine producers: Colombia and Peru. According to CNN, this, combined with Ecuador’s well-established ports accustomed to handling large freight exports, has transformed the country into an ideal departure point for narcotics. Foreign criminal organizations, including Mexican cartels, Brazilian urban gangs, and even Albanian mafia cells, are believed to have co-opted local organizations in Ecuador, contributing to the escalating violence. The dollarization of Ecuador’s economy in 2000 also facilitated money laundering operations, further incentivizing criminal organizations to establish their operations within the country.

Socio-Economic Impact of COVID-19

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have further exacerbated the situation. Over half of Ecuador’s workforce is in the informal economy, leaving millions without the security of contracts and benefits during nationwide shutdowns. The resultant economic insecurity has pushed some towards crime, providing fertile ground for criminal recruiters.

Government Efforts and Challenges

In response to the escalating crisis, Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency in Ecuador’s prisons, deploying 2,700 members of the security forces to regain control. Despite these efforts, the government has struggled to reduce violence. In just two years in office, President Lasso has appointed five different directors of the prison service, none of whom have successfully curbed the rising violence. Ecuador now faces a complex and dire situation, involving ruthless criminal organizations, a faltering prison system, and socio-economic challenges amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s stability hangs in the balance, and decisive, effective action is required to combat this escalating crisis.

Looking Ahead

In the face of this escalating crisis, Ecuador is tasked with the daunting challenge of reestablishing law and order within its prison system, dismantling the intricate web of criminal networks operating within its borders, and mitigating the socio-economic conditions that have, in part, facilitated the growth of such activities.