20 Inmates Slaughtered in Mafia Prison Riot in Ecuador

Outbreaks of violence have become common in the country's penitentiary system, and is often connected to rival gangs.
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Inmates are seen on the roof of the Turi prison after a riot in Cuenca, Ecuador, on April 3, 2022. Photo by FERNANDO MACHADO/AFP via Getty Images.

Yet another bloodbath has rocked an Ecuadorian prison, killing at least 20 people. Some were reportedly decapitated, according to local news reports.

The latest slaughter happened on March 3 inside the Liberty Deprivation Center N. 1, also known as the Turi prison, in the city of Cuenca, the country’s third largest city and an expat haven

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Prison massacres have become commonplace in Ecuador, with at least 316 people killed in 2021 in eight separate clashes. The insecurity inside the prisons echoes the insecurity outside. A bloody drug war has led to a soaring homicide rate, and criminal groups have begun hanging dead bodies from bridges, emulating one of the bloodiest tactics of Mexico’s violent cartels.

The number of murders in Ecuador rose more than 80 percent last year, to 2,494, up from 1,371 in 2020, according to statistics from the Government Ministry.

Gunshots were first heard around 1:30 a.m. on March 3 inside the Turi prison, according to local news reports. The prison holds around 1,700 inmates and is a stronghold of Los Lobos, or The Wolves, one of Ecuador’s most powerful gangs. Authorities attributed the riot to an internal dispute within Los Lobos. 

At around 4 a.m., the government deployed the National Police and Armed Forces to try and shore up security. That didn’t seem to work, and some five hours later the Air Force deployed planes to send more police officers to support the 800 agents who were in the prison trying to control the situation, according to Ecuadorian news outlet GK. Police threw tear gas bombs while inmates ran onto the roofs seeking safety. In a video taken from outside the prison, inmates could be heard yelling inside for help and pleading to be let out.

“The attacks were carried out by mafias that do not want to submit to control,” said Ecuador’s Minister of the Interior, Patricio Carrillo, who was appointed to the post less than a week earlier. Carrillo said authorities found extensive “ballistic evidence” in the prison indicating the use of five types of guns, many of which had been hidden in the prison walls and floor.

Carillo said President Guillermo Lasso ordered La Roca maximum security prison in Guayaquil —closed in 2013— be reopened in order to house five gang leaders accused of orchestrating the massacre. A former high-ranking prison official once boasted that inmates at La Roca are locked up for 23 hours a day and prevented from having any communication with the outside world.

Lasso, a conservative who took office in May, declared a state of emergency in October and ordered troops onto the streets to address the violence. Under the executive order, authorities were given the power to restrict freedom of movement and gatherings.

The Interamerican Commission on Human Rights warned in a February 2022 report that Ecuador  is plagued by “unprecedented levels of violence and corruption within the prisons, caused by the state’s abandonment of the penitentiary system years ago.” It criticized the government for adopting a policy that “favors incarceration” for almost all security problems, resulting in an “exponential increase in incarceration” in recent years.

Most of the inmates killed in last year’s prison massacres were young people accused of committing minor offenses; some had already been cleared for release, according to the commission. It found that the most dangerous prisons are effectively run by gangs with ties to international crime groups, who charge inmates exorbitant prices to sleep on beds. Authorities and gang leaders alike possess keys to the prison wings, the commission found.

The Turi prison has seen massacres before - in February 2021, 34 people died in a prison riot. Clashes broke out across prisons in three cities the same day, killing a total of 79 people.  Soon after, prison authorities identified widespread security breaches within the Turi facility, according to GK. Among other things, body scanners didn’t work, the vehicle scanner was damaged, and the prison’s camera system wasn’t active. It’s unclear if they had been fixed before this week’s violence.

Ecuador is a prominent drug trans-shipment point and it borders coca-producing countries Colombia and Peru. With record amounts of cocaine coming through from Colombia for transportation via the country’s huge port system to either the U.S or Europe, gangs are believed to be fighting for control of the drug trade. Authorities have said criminal gangs with ties to Mexican drug cartels have also started operating in the country, possibly fueling the escalation in violence.