Ecuador declares emergency after 22 killed in prison riots

Among the wounded in the riots were eight police officers. PHOTO: REUTERS

QUITO (AFP) - Ecuador on Thursday (July 22) declared a state of emergency in its penitentiary system after riots at two prisons left 22 dead and 57 wounded.

President Guillermo Lasso issued the order "to mobilise all necessary human and economic resources to re-establish order" in Ecuador's prisons.

Lasso said the military would be in charge of controlling the prison perimeter and entry, while police officers would control the inside.

Until now civilians trained as prison guards were in charge of indoor security.

Prison authorities earlier suspended all activities "that could put the penitentiary population and administrative personnel at risk." Outside visits were cancelled at some prisons.

Among the wounded in the riots at prisons in Guayas, in southwestern Ecuador, and Cotopaxi, in the centre of the country, were eight police officers. An earlier toll had reported 21 deaths.

Fourteen inmates died in Cotopaxi, including one who died in the hospital, and five police officers were wounded, government minister Alexandra Vela said.

In Guayas there were eight prisoner deaths and three wounded police officers.

Amid the chaos and unrest a police officer was raped, Vela said.

The same two penitentiaries were involved in a wave of riots that broke out in February. In a single day, 79 inmates died in clashes between rival gangs vying for control.

In those riots, inmates were decapitated and burnt in violence that exposed the power of prison gangs and shocked the South American nation.

Severe overcrowding

Cotopaxi Governor Oswaldo Coronel said "high-calibre firearms" and explosives were used during the riots "which has caused a large amount of destruction inside" the prisons.

Several Cotopaxi prisoners also managed to escape at dawn. Police have not said how many slipped out, but did say that they managed to re-capture 78 of them.

President Lasso, who took office just in May, fired the head of the SNAI prisons management body and replaced him with a reserve army colonel.

Ecuador's prison system has about 60 facilities designed for 29,000 inmates but is burdened by overcrowding and staffing shortages.

About 38,000 detainees are watched over by 1,500 guards, a shortfall of some 2,500, according to experts.

Ecuador's human rights ombudsman says there were 103 killings in Ecuador's prisons in 2020.

In an attempt to counter the violence, former president Lenin Moreno declared a state of emergency several times, including for three months in 2020.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Ecuador has used alternative sentences for minor offences as a means of easing its prison population, which reduced overcrowding from 42 per cent to 30 per cent.

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