QUITO, Ecuador — Hundreds of police officers have entered an Ecuadorean prison where more than 100 inmates died this week, officials said early Thursday, with officials seeking to take back control of the penitentiary.
The announcement follows the president’s declaration of a state of emergency that would give military personnel control of the facilities and put inmates in strict lockdown.
The riot at the Coastal Penitentiary, a crowded prison on the outskirts of Guayaquil, began Tuesday morning in two maximum-security pavilions and led to 116 deaths and about 80 injuries, all involving inmates, President Guillermo Lasso said late Wednesday.
“We are working to avoid further deaths,” said Mr. Lasso, who called the episode “sorrowful.” The emergency steps will bar inmates in the large facility, which has nearly 10,000 inmates, from gathering and socializing, he said, and subject their correspondence to review.
On Twitter, the Ecuadorean police said that at least two officers had died in the clashes, and that officers had uncovered explosives and “more evidence” once they entered the facility.
It has been a deadly year in Ecuador’s prisons. In all, gang wars behind bars have claimed more than 200 lives in 2021 — a number that has risen sharply in recent years. For instance, in 2018, there were only 15 such deaths.
Criminal gangs with ties to international drug cartels have increasingly vied for control of prisons where their most dangerous members and leaders are confined — part of a larger struggle to control the nation’s lucrative drug trade.
Ecuador does not grow a lot of coca leaf, but its neighbors, Colombia and Peru, are two of the world’s largest producers. Colombian cocaine traffickers and guerrillas have long used Ecuador’s territory for operations, and in recent years have begun diverting a growing share of exports to neighboring countries.
Before this week’s clash, the deadliest confrontation between gangs had been in February, when coordinated uprisings took place in three of the most violent prisons in the country, leaving nearly 80 inmates dead. Gruesome footage and photos surfaced on social media, showing mutilated torsos and rivals holding their enemies’ heads.
The prison system is now in deep crisis, many say, a result of underfunding and an excess of inmates awaiting sentencing. Increasingly, the guards are seen as irrelevant as the gangs battle for control.
In Wednesday’s news conference, Fausto Cobo, formerly in charge of the penitentiary system and now head of the Intelligence Bureau, said that the situation in the Ecuadorean prisons was more than a penitentiary issue.
“This is a threat against the state,” he said, “by a power equal or higher to the state’s.”
Julie Turkewitz contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia.