Security is being stepped up in Ecuador amid a wave of violence that has left scores of police dead and forced President Guillermo Lasso to declare a 45-day state of emergency in the provinces of Guayas and Esmeraldas.
National Security Secretary Diego Ordoñez vowed on Thursday that the government would regain control of Ecuador’s prisons – repeated sites of bloodshed – and implement other anti-crime operations after an emergency town hall meeting.
At least five policemen have been killed in explosions in Ecuador, Ecuador’s police chief, Fausto Salinas, announced at a press conference on Tuesday.
Salinas said that on the same day three explosions were recorded in the city of Esmeraldas: two car bombs and one in the vicinity of the Community Police Unit. He added that the wave of attacks began after dozens of prisoners were transferred to other prisons in the country.
President Lasso has repeatedly blamed organized drug gangs for the violence inside prisons and throughout Ecuador, which is an important transit point on the route that brings cocaine from South America to the US and Asia.
Ecuadorian prisons are chronically overcrowded. In July 2021, the head of the prison at the time, Eduardo Moncayo, told local media that the Penitentiary Litoral was the most overcrowded in the country, with more than 9,000 inmates in a facility planned for 5,000.
The prison system has been on high alert since prison clashes in September 2021 involving automatic weapons and even grenades.
More than 300 prisoners died in prison violence in 2021, according to data from Ecuador’s SNAI prison service, and in May a prison riot in the north of the country left more than 23 dead.
Ecuadorian government ministers have blamed the attacks on the government’s attempt to fight organized crime.
“We will not lower our guard, they will not lower the morale of the police. The power of the state cannot surrender to organized crime. The police cannot appear alarmed,” said Interior Minister Juan Zapata on Tuesday morning.
According to Ecuador’s prison service, SNAI, the reason for the transfers, which began on Tuesday, is to “reduce overcrowding, improve infrastructure and security conditions.” SNAI also wrote in a tweet that 1,002 prisoners were transferred from Ecuador’s most violent Guayaquil prison to prisons across the country.
Defense Minister Luis Lara said the attacks were carried out in response to “the national government’s firm decision to regain control of the prisons and eradicate the country’s drug business”.
He said the violence in Guayas and Esmeraldas is linked to drug trafficking and organized crime.
About 1,400 Armed Forces personnel have been deployed in Guayaquil, and more will be added this week, he added.
“What happened in Guayaquil and Esmeraldas is devastating. Criminal groups will not be able to take over the country,” Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Holguin wrote in a tweet on Tuesday. “All the support to our president Guillermo Lasso, our Armed Forces, the Police. This must be a national crusade. International support has been essential in this crusade.”