More than 100 prison guards are behind held hostage in Ecuador — which has entered “a state of war” against drug cartels carrying out a wave of kidnappings and deadly attacks.
Hundreds of soldiers patrolled near-deserted streets in the nation’s capital, where residents were gripped by fear over a surge of violence that has prompted international concern.
The small South American country has been plunged into crisis after years of growing control by transnational cartels that use its ports to ship cocaine to the United States and Europe.
The latest crisis began when authorities on Monday reported the prison escape of one of the country’s most powerful narco bosses, Jose Adolfo Macias, known by the alias “Fito.”
The nation’s president imposed a state of emergency and curfew. The gangs hit back with a declaration of war, threatening to execute civilians and security forces.
The country has seen prison riots, explosions and armed attacks in which at least 10 people have been killed.
More than 100 prison guards and administrative staff are being held hostage, the SNAI prisons authority said.
“The national police and the armed forces are working to safeguard the integrity of the employees of the prison security service who are being held,” SNAI told journalists, according to Reuters.
“We are awaiting official information about the situation.”
In the port city of Guayaquil, attackers wearing balaclavas and firing shots stormed a state-owned TV station on Tuesday, briefly taking several journalists and staff members hostage in dramatic scenes broadcast live before police arrived.
Local media reported some of the attackers were as young as 16.
“There is fear, you need to be careful, looking here and there, if you take this bus, what will happen,” a 68-year-old woman told AFP in Quito, on condition of anonymity and describing herself as “terrified.”
‘Going to be bloody.’
After the assault on the television station Ecuador’s President Daniel Noboa, who has been in office for just two months, gave orders to “neutralise” the criminal gangs.
“We are in a state of war and we cannot give in to these terrorist groups,” he told radio Canela on Wednesday, pledging to “relentlessly confront” more than 20,000 members of “terrorist organisations”.
“This government is taking the necessary actions that in recent years nobody wanted to take. And that requires balls the size of ostrich eggs,” he said.
Esteban Torres Cobo, a vice minister in Mr Noboa’s government, told BBC the war against the gangs could result in casualties.
“It’s going to be bloody but this is the change we need in order to have a better future, we cannot be postponing this decision throughout the years, we have to take decision now,” he said.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is “very much alarmed by the deteriorating situation in the country as well as its disruptive impact on the lives of Ecuadorans,” said his spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
Brian Nichols, the top US diplomat for Latin America, said Washington was “extremely concerned” by the violence and kidnappings, and pledged to provide assistance and to “remain in close contact” with Noboa’s team.
China’s embassy and consulates in Ecuador announced on Wednesday that services to the public were suspended. France and Russia both advised their citizens against travel to Ecuador. In Australia, the government has asked travellers to “exercise a high degree of caution” when travelling.
Peru put its border with Ecuador under a state of emergency, sending an additional 500 police and soldiers to secure the frontier.
Colombia’s army also announced the bolstering of security at the country’s border.
Murder rate quadrupled
Geography and corruption are among the reasons that the once peaceful country has evolved into a hotspot of transnational organised crime.
Ecuador borders the world’s two largest cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru.
Guayaquil port, from where most of the drugs are shipped abroad – often in containers of bananas or in legal shipments by front companies – is seen as having weaker controls.
This has drawn in foreign mafia from Colombia, Mexico and Europe, allied with local gangs who fight brutal wars for control of lucrative drug routes.
Much of the violence has been concentrated in prisons, where clashes between inmates have left more than 460 dead, many beheaded or burned alive, since February 2021.
The country’s murder rate quadrupled from 2018 to 2022 and a record 220 tons of drugs were seized last year.
Ms Noboa said he is targeting 22 criminal groups, the most powerful of which are Los Choneros, Los Lobos and Tiguerones.
Los Chonero’s leader, Fito, had been leading the criminal enterprise from his prison cell in Guayaquil for the past 12 years until his escape.
On Tuesday, officials said another narco boss, Los Lobos leader Fabricio Colon Pico, also escaped following his arrest last Friday for alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Ecuador’s attorney general.