Ecuador is under heightened security amid an intensification of violence that has killed several police officers and forced President Guillermo Lasso to declare a 45-day state of emergency in Guayas and Esmeraldas provinces.
National Security Minister Diego Ordoñez vowed on Thursday that the government would take back control of Ecuador’s prisons — sites of repeated bloodshed — and conduct other anti-crime operations, following an emergency council meeting.
At least five Ecuadorian police officers have been killed in explosive attacks, Ecuador’s police chief Fausto Salinas announced during a press conference on Tuesday.
Salinas said three explosions were registered in the city of Esmeraldas on the same day: two car bombings and one in the vicinity of the Community Police Unit. He added that the wave of attacks started in response to the transfer of dozens of prisoners to other prisons in the country.
President Lasso has repeatedly blamed organized drug gangs for violence in prisons and throughout Ecuador, which is a major transit point on the route that takes cocaine from South America to the US and Asia.
Prisons in Ecuador are chronically overcrowded. In July 2021, then-prison chief Eduardo Moncayo told local media that the Litoral Penitentiary was the most overcrowded in the country, holding more than 9,000 inmates in a facility I had planned for 5,000.
The prison system has been on high alert since September 2021 in prisons involving automatic weapons and even grenades.
According to figures from the Ecuadorian prison service SNAI, more than 300 inmates were killed in prison violence in 2021, and more than 23 were killed in a prison riot in the north of the country in May.
Ecuadorian ministers have attributed the attacks to the government’s attempt to tackle organized crime.
“We’re not going to lower our vigilance, they’re not going to lower police morale. The power of the state cannot yield to organized crime. The police should not appear overwhelmed,” Interior Minister Juan Zapata said on Tuesday morning.
According to Ecuador’s prison service, SNAI, the reason for the transfers that began Tuesday is “to reduce overcrowding, improve infrastructure and security conditions.” SNAI also wrote in a tweet that 1,002 inmates were transferred from Ecuador’s most violent prison, Guayaquil, to prisons across the country.
Defense Minister Luis Lara said the attacks were carried out in response to the “determined decision by the national government to take back control of prisons and eradicate drug trafficking in the country.”
She said the violence in Guayas and Esmeraldas is associated with drug trafficking and organized crime.
About 1,400 military forces have been deployed to Guayaquil, with more to be added this week, she added.
“What happened in Guayaquil and Esmeraldas is devastating. Criminal groups will not be able to take over the country,” Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Holguín tweeted on Tuesday. “All support to our President Guillermo Lasso, to our armed forces, to the police. This must be a national crusade. International support was key to this crusade.”