Gang War Causes Brutal Prison Riots Across Ecuador, Leaving 79 Dead

Following the death of a local gang boss, planned riots broke out in the overpopulated prison system.
February 24, 2021, 4:39pm
Soldiers at Ecuador Prison
Soldiers stand guard outside a prison in Ecuador after at least 79 inmates died in riots blamed on gang warfare. (Photo by FERNANDO MACHADO/AFP via Getty Images)

At least 79 people died after brutal riots in separate prisons across Ecuador. Authorities claimed that coordinated violence erupted in prisons in three cities across the small South American country on Tuesday, as rival gangs fought for control of the prison system.

Photographs and video flooded social media revealing the shocking violence, and included material that depicted inmates who had been decapitated and dismembered.

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Bodycam video from Ecuador’s Special Forces showed officers swarming one of the prisons in tactical formations, shooting tear gas into burning rooms, breaking open barred doors to enter different areas of the prison, and forcing inmates to the ground. Inside, authorities discovered numerous knives, machetes, guns and cell phones.

Edmundo Moncayo, the head of Ecuador’s prison system, gave a press conference on Tuesday during which he claimed the violence was related to a dispute over the leadership of the overpopulated penitentiary system after the death of the leader of a gang called Los Choneros. 

Jorge Luis Zambrano, known as JL or Rasquiña, was released from Cotopaxi prison in June 2020, the site of eight deaths during this week's riots. Ahead of his release last year, a gangster rap group released a track called Chonero JL, which currently has over 770,000 views on Youtube. In the track, they “welcome JL” to the outside world and warn rivals to stay away.

“Don’t mess with JL...that old man has the money to blow up your teeth,” rapped one man.

The following month Zambrano received his online diploma to become a lawyer in Ecuador after balancing his duties controlling the largest gang in the prison system with taking his online classes behind bars. But his new life as a lawyer on the outside didn’t last long. Zambrano was gunned down in the foodcourt of a shopping mall on December 28, just six months after leaving prison.

Los Choneros are alleged to have been involved in the international cocaine trade due to the country’s proximity to the world’s two largest producers of coca leaves: Colombia and Peru. An ongoing war with another criminal group called Los Lagartos in Ecuador has generated violence both on the streets and in the prison system as warring criminal factions dispute local control of the trade.

The death of 79 people this week was a startling sign of the lack of control in Ecuador’s prison system. But similar events have taken place over the years across the region. In May 2020, at least 46 prisoners died during riots in Venezuela. Gang battles in a Brazil prison in 2019 left 56 people dead, and a riot in a Mexican prison in 2016 saw 49 fatalities. The viciousness of the violence also isn’t without precedence. Last week, several men were beheaded during prison riots in Paraguay.