MEXICO CITY – Authorities in Ecuador on Thursday announced that law enforcement officers responding to the country’s deadliest prison riots have seized firearms, cellphones, handmade weapons and other banned objects.
The seizures happened Wednesday night in one of the prisons where seemingly coordinated fights among gangs broke out Monday leaving dozens of inmates dead and exposing the limited control that authorities have over people behind bars. The national agency overseeing detention centers said officers in that prison in the Pacific coast city of Guayaquil were also able to thwart the escape of inmates and captured more than 10 who were already outside the facility’s perimeter.
Photos tweeted by Ecuador’s police show more than a dozen inmates lying on the ground, face down, all wearing a variety of shorts and T-shirts, including a sports jersey. The agency said it assisted in preventing the “massive escape of about 166 inmates.”
Hundreds of police officers and military personnel have converged on the prisons since the unrest began in the prisons’ maximum-security wings as rival gangs fought for leadership. Photographs and videos on social media show alleged inmates who had been decapitated and dismembered amid pools of blood.
A planned protest by families of inmates Thursday in the capital of Quito did not materialize when only three relatives showed up.
The seizures happened hours after President Lenín Moreno, whose term ends in May, announced he will seek help from other Latin American countries to address the crisis in Ecuador’s prisons and acknowledged the system is deficient and lacks financial resources.
Contraband is not uncommon in prisons in Latin America, where authorities often lack control and inmates are left to effectively guard themselves, arranging their own social systems and using intimidation, abuse and extortion to accumulate power.
In prisons in Bolivia, for example, drugs, weapons and unauthorized people including prostitutes go in and out of prisons constantly, said Mark Ungar, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College in the U.S. Cellphones illegally introduced to prisons create a particular challenge for authorities because they allow some people to continue their illicit activities despite their incarceration.
“It wasn’t just an isolated prison where, you know, conditions were unique and boiled over in one place, but in three places at the same time, which absolutely indicates communication,” Ungar, who has researched prisons in Latin America, said of this week’s riots. He added that corruption within the ranks of prison guards and other officials allows for cellphones to be sneaked into prisons and used by inmates.
“You just need one person to allow that to happen. So, you just need one guard, one administrator, to bring in a bunch of cellphones,” Ungar said. “When I was working in Honduras, we argued with the security minister to cut off cellphone contact, sort of stop the signals, that way, even if cellphones physically come in, they can’t communicate. They claimed that they can’t do that because it would cut off neighborhoods’ cellphone service, but my sense is that there is too much interest in not doing it.”
Some 70% of the country’s prison population lives in the centers in three different cities where the unrest occurred. Their maximum-security areas tend to house inmates linked to killings, drug trafficking, extortion and other major crimes.
Officials have said 37 inmates died in Guayaquil, 34 in the southern city of Cuenca and eight in the central city of Latacunga.
Ecuador’s prisons were designed for some 27,000 inmates but house about 38,000. Prison riots have happened relatively frequently in recent years in Ecuador, but their death toll had been significantly lower compared to this week’s events.