The massacre in three prisons in Ecuador, which occurred on February 23rd, reflects “a high level of corruption in the prison system and the power of drug trafficking within and without,” says Colonel Mario Pazmiño, former director of intelligence for the army. The massacre left 79 dead in the prisons of Guayaquil (37), Turi (34) and Latacunga (8).
According to officials, the riot began as several rival prison gangs fought for leadership. Authorities claim that the battle for control began back in December when Jorge Luis Zambrano “Rasquiña,” leader of Los Choneros, the most powerful gang within Ecuadorian prisons, was murdered in a shopping mall in Manta, Ecuador, a few months after being released.
Ecuador’s director of the National Service of Comprehensive Attention for Persons Deprived of Liberty and Adolescent Offenders (SNAI), General Edmundo Moncayo, said, “We expected an immediate reaction [to Zambrano’s death], but the reaction had been delayed…and well planned.”
He also said that at least four criminal organizations were involved in the riots: Los Pipos, Los Lobos, Tiguerones and Chone Killer’s.
Pazmiño pointed to drug trafficking as the main trigger for the prison crisis.
“The ‘megabandas’ that are inside the prisons belong to the cartels of Sinaloa, Jalisco Nueva Generación and Del Golfo that have a relationship, I would say directly, with some of the groups or ‘megabandas’ of the prisons.”
The three mentioned organizations are originally from Mexico and are dedicated to drug trafficking and arms trafficking.
Ecuador is not just a country of passage
For government control to return to prisons, Pazmiño says it is necessary to champion a strong fight against drug trafficking.
“This situation of open borders, the lack of adequate control at border crossings, the different clandestine crossings and analyzing the permanent penetration of drug trafficking and narco-terrorism structures in the provinces of Esmeraldas and Sucumbíos,” says Pazmiño, is where the Government and its forces of order must arrive.
According to the article published in 2019 by “InSight Crime,’ more than a third of Colombia’s cocaine production reaches Ecuador. The substance leaves by air and sea and reaches the entire world.
The issue is broad and requires “the change of countless laws,” adds Pazmiño, who points out that the first step that this and the next government must take is “to remove that veil of disinformation that exists in relation to the fact that we continue to be a country of transit.”
“We are no longer a country of transit, for many years. We are a country that gathers international broadcasting platforms.”
Pazmiño says that the concern today is that Ecuador will become a drug processor, after the recent discovery of a camp with pistols, ammunition, Motorola radio, vests, a rifle and 10.7 kg of marijuana, in Sucumbíos, on 12 December 12, 2020
“We have a much bigger problem than the authorities can imagine. This prison crisis, without an urgent state reaction, will move to the streets,” says Pazmiño.
“We are going to find actions and situations of extreme violence in the cities,” says Pazmiño, as the motivations of the drug cartels would seek “at any cost” to take up spaces of mobility and supply corridors occupied by other organizations.
Lack of guards was root cause of riots
According to security analyst Ricardo Camacho, in Ecuador there are 38,000 prisoners and 1,460 prison guards and 1,000 “on loan” police officers.
International norms dictate that for every 10 prisoners there must be a specialized agent, meaning that Ecuador should have 3,800 guards. But, Camacho explains, prison professionals cannot work 365 days a year.
“You have to multiply by double. In other words, the country needs 7,600 agents to work one shift per day.” This reality was confirmed by Moncayo, who acknowledged that “the deficit is 70%.”
Camacho says that to regain control of prisons and avoid these conflicts, more than 5,000 agents specialized in prison security are urgently needed. He adds that the that the authorities, and the next president, should ask themselves, “Why doesn’t the country have a secure prison system? Or why don’t they want to invest in it?”
According to Camacho, the State always turned a blind eye on this issue.
In wake of riots, another prison faces uprising
The alert went out a little after 10:00 on Monday. At that time, five prison guards were being held by the inmates of the Cotopaxi regional prison.
Minutes later, patrol cars arrived one after another. The military also arrived. At 1:30 p.m., the police confirmed that everything was under control and that the guards were free.
“We feel unsafe,” said prison officers from other prisons, who asked what was happening with their companions. They say that after the massacre of 79 inmates they feel more vulnerable.
The Penal Code (art. 685) says that the internal security of the penitentiaries is the exclusive competence of the guards.
But there are not enough staff. It is not a professionalized body. Those who currently work say they lack the necessary equipment.
Official data indicate that 1,460 guards operate in the country and 3,800 more are required.
In Cotopaxi there is one guard for every 90 prisoners. In the Lacatunga it is one for 240 and in Guayaquil the ratio is one for 77. In Turi (Cuenca) there is one for 92.
Since 2017 no new personnel have been added to the prison system. In October 2020, a selection process was terminated, when the 500 applicants were preparing to attend the training course, the last requirement to work as prison guards.
Now, the authorities say that a group of 200 will join the system on April 15th, and that two weeks ago another call was opened to include 300 more.
The Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN) recommend having one guide for every 10 inmates. The Ombudsman’s Office also has a report, which establishes that the prison system has 17 problems, including the lack of guards.
The Minister of Government warns that it is “urgent to professionalize a prison security body.”
“We need more equipment,” says the staff.
A guard who works in the Cuenca jail in Turi, where 34 inmates were killed last week, said that they could not react when at 07:00, a group of inmates used a grinder to cut open the security gates and entered the maximum-security ward.
“One by one they took the prisoners out and into a corridor where they were shot, stabbed and had their throats slit.”
He says he saw a prisoner throw a grenade into a maximum-security cell on the third floor.
“Everything was complete chaos.”
He and other colleagues claim that they do not have batons, gas masks or vests, and that this persists despite their prior complaints.
Moncayo says that the personnel are equipped with what is necessary to face the demonstrations and insists that what he guards are saying is not true.
Another guard, who guards the maximum-security pavilion in Turi, says that when it all happened, they did not have pepper spray, tasers or riot gear. Instead, they faced prisoners who had machetes, firearms and knives made by them. He said that as they watched a prisoner get stabbed to death—who was trying to escape thru a window—the guards had to take refuge in a safe place, because there was nothing they could do.
The guards in Cotopaxi have complained about the lack of equipment as well. They said that the bullet-proof vests they have now are 8 years old and they need newer protection. The group said that a month ago a letter was sent to the prison director, asking for the provision of equipment, but that they still haven’t received an answer.