Ecuador president decrees emergency in prisons after clashes

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People wait outside Litoral Penitentiary for news of their incarcerated family members after deadly fights inside the jail in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Thursday, July 22, 2021. Rival gangs of inmates fought in two prisons in Ecuador, killing at least 18 people and injuring dozens, authorities said Thursday. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

QUITO – Ecuador's president declared a state of emergency Thursday in the country's prisons following fighting between rival gangs that killed 22 inmates and injured dozens.

The violence began Wednesday afternoon at the main prison in the city of Guayaquil, the Litoral Penitentiary, as well as at the Latacunga prison in central Ecuador, authorities said. Officials said police had quelled the rioting and regained control of the prisons, and nine officers and 59 prisoners were injured.

Police said on Twitter there had been an escape attempt at Latacunga, but that 78 prisoners were recaptured.

Gustavo Larrea, a former interior minister, said the fighting was among crime groups linked to drug trafficking that have ’’relative control″ of the prisons and seek to control illegal operations on the outside.

President Guillermo Lasso decreed a state of emergency Thursday afternoon.

“I want to tell the mafias that try to intimidate this country that they are wrong ...," the president said. "They are wrong if they think our hand is going to shake. We are going to use all our legal powers to impose the rule of law and guarantee peace and human rights in prisons in Ecuador.”

Ecuador’s prisons are under the internal control of so-called prison guides, civilians with minimal preparation, and police can only access prisons in case of emergency. Under the state of emergency, soldiers will guard the perimeters of the prisons, while police will control the entry points, to check for attempts to smuggle arms, drugs and cellphones to inmates.

Lasso added that he has removed the director of the country's prison system, Edmundo Moncayo, from his post and appointed retired army Col. Fausto Cobo as his replacement.

Police Col. Marcelo Castillo told the Ecuavisa television network that the dead inmates in Guayaquil were “brutally murdered” while in a prison orchard.

"It was an execution, revenge, rivalry what happened in that place,” he said.

Riots and deadly clashes in prisons in Ecuador are relatively frequent. In June, a fight between gangs in a prison killed two people and injured 11. In February, fighting in Ecuadorian prisons killed about 80 prisoners.