QUITO (Reuters) – Military and police operations took place in Ecuador on Thursday in response to a wave of violence and the detention of nearly 180 prison staff by inmates, with the government vowing to wage war on gangs criminals whom they accuse of being responsible for the unrest.
The dramatic rise in violence this week – including an assault on the antennas of a television channel, unexplained explosions in various cities and the kidnapping of police officers – appears to be a response to new President Daniel Noboa’s plans to deal with to a disastrous situation. security situation.
Noboa has pledged, among other things, to hold imprisoned gang leaders in new high-security prisons. The government is expected to share details of the planned facilities on Thursday.
Noboa declared a state of emergency for 60 days, sending the military into the streets and designating 22 gangs as terrorist groups, and said Wednesday that U.S. aid was expected within days.
The 36-year-old son of a banana baron, who took office in November, is backed by the often divisive National Assembly, which voted unanimously Wednesday night to back his efforts to address safety so far.
Little information has been released by authorities on the status of the 158 prison guards and 20 administrative staff taken hostage since Monday in at least seven prisons.
“The situation is very worrying, we still don’t know what the conditions are inside,” said Carlos Ordonez, vice president of the prison workers’ association. “No one comes in, no one goes out, we don’t have accurate information.”
Ordonez said the military had taken over management of the sites where the hostages are being held.
Videos showing prison staff subjected to extreme violence, including shootings and hangings, have circulated on social media, although the armed forces commander, Rear Admiral Jaime Vela, said on Wednesday that no hostages had not been killed.
Reuters could not immediately verify the videos.
“For now, we understand and hope that these are not our colleagues in the videos… We believe that they are all still alive,” Ordonez said, adding that his group has filed a petition for habeas corpus to try to pressure the government to do more.
There are only about 2,600 prison guards nationally to manage 32,000 prisoners, not including youth detention centers.
“We demand the release of my colleagues and then better working conditions,” Ordonez said.
Prison agency SNAI said in a statement Thursday that there had been disturbances overnight at two prisons and three inmates had escaped from another.
Operations to free the hostages are underway, the press release added.
Ecuador borders cocaine-producing Colombia and Peru and has become a major drug shipping point. As its neighbors tightened border controls this week, the Ecuadorian army carried out raids and weapons seizures across the country.
Vela said Wednesday that 329 people, mostly belonging to gangs such as Los Choneros, Los Lobos and Los Tiguerones, had been arrested since the president declared a state of emergency on Monday.
Police officers have also been the target of kidnappings. Police had reported that nine detainees were being held earlier this week, but it was unclear how many were still in captivity as of Thursday.
The streets of Quito and Guayaquil remained quieter than usual on Thursday, with classes held virtually and many people working from home.
Images of armed men seizing a television studio of public channel TC on Tuesday afternoon were broadcast live for about 20 minutes and made headlines around the world.
Alina Manrique, a 39-year-old journalist who was among the hostages, said she had been afraid of being killed and imagined never seeing her children again.
Being rescued by police after the gunmen surrendered was like being “reborn,” she said.
“Their intention is clear to me, for everyone to see that they were capable of doing this at two o’clock in the afternoon, of attacking a television channel and bringing 50 journalists, a city, a country,” Manrique said.
Manrique’s colleague, José Luis Calderon, told Reuters on Wednesday that the gunmen had repeatedly said they were part of La Firma, a gang associated with Los Choneros, one of the gangs designated as a terrorist organization by Noboa .
The apparent escape of Los Choneros leader Adolfo Macias from prison over the weekend contributed to Noboa’s decision to declare a state of emergency.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito, additional reporting by Herbert Villarraga in Guayaquil; writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; editing by Rosalba O’Brien)
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