MEXICO CITY – Authorities say at least 40 inmates were killed in a prison riot in northern Ecuador on Monday, the latest in a series of bloody clashes within the South American country’s violent detention system.
The riots, which started early Monday morning, swept through the Centro de Rehabilitación Social Bellavista, a prison in Santo Domingo, a province west of the capital Quito. More than 100 inmates were seized as they tried to escape from the prison grounds, authorities said.
Horrific images shared on social media showed a pile of bloodied bodies dumped on a patio in the prison grounds. Most of the dead were stabbed to death, according to Patricio Carrillo, Ecuador’s interior minister, who noted that the riots were caused by a conflict between criminal gangs. Police said they found knives and guns among the inmates.
On Monday afternoon, authorities said the prison had been brought under control by the national police and military.
“What happened today in the Bellavista Prison in the city of Santo Domingo was the brutality of this criminal organization,” said Mr. Carrillo at a press conference.
At the time of the riots, the prison housed more than 1,600 inmates, nearly double its original capacity of 905, according to official data. according to mr. Carrillo had only 25 officers on duty for the entire prison.
Monday’s bloody violence, the second deadly prison riot in Ecuador in just over a month, underscores the dire security situation in the country’s troubled and overcrowded penitentiary system. About 300 people were killed in prisons across the country last year, according to the United Nations, and the prison population has tripled in the past 13 years, putting a lot of strain on the system.
“This is an alarming reminder of the lack of control in the Ecuadorian prison system,” Tamara Taraciuk Broner, Americas Director at Human Rights Watch, said via text message. “As long as authorities do not prioritize tackling prison overcrowding and ending control of prisons by criminal organizations that extort inmates and their families, these facilities will continue to be a breeding ground for crime and violence.”
In February, President Guillermo Lasso launched a new policy to increase access to food, health care and work for prisoners, among other things. To help reduce overcrowding, he also ordered the release of about 5,000 inmates, including those who had committed petty crimes and had served more than half of their sentences.
The UN welcomed the move as a worthy first step.
“We hope the new policy will be implemented to help the Ecuadorian prison system move away from its over-reliance on punitive measures and towards crime prevention and bring it into line with international human rights standards,” the organization said in a statement.
The measures came after a riot in the city of Guayaquil in September last year that left more than 100 dead and 52 injured. Mr Lasso declared a state of emergency which lasted for three months.
“My deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of those killed in the riots at Santo Domingo Prison,” Mr Lasso said on Twitter on Monday. “This is an unfortunate result of gang violence.”
During a press conference, Mr. Carrillo, the interior minister, said the likely cause of Monday’s riots was the relocation of the leader of one of Ecuador’s largest criminal organizations from another institution. The criminal leader, Freddy Anchundia, was… transferred to a maximum-security prison after another prison riot last month in El Turi in the south of the country, which left 21 people dead.
However, after arriving at an institution in Guayaquil, Mr. Anchundia was ordered by a judge to be transferred again to the prison in Santo Domingo, where he was when riots broke out there Monday morning.
according to mr. Carrillo was fueled Monday’s riots by the same criminal groups that had started last month’s deadly riots in El Turi.
Ecuador’s prison system “has many structural problems – these problems cannot be solved in the short term,” said Mr. Carrillo. “What we are experiencing is no longer a problem of institutions, let alone individuals. This is a state problem and we need the government to solve it.”
Susana Roa Chejín and Marcela Ribadeneira contributed from Quito, Ecuador.