All prison staff held by inmates at prisons across Ecuador have been freed following military operations to retake control over the weekend, the SNAI prisons agency has confirmed.
Some 158 guards and 20 administrative staffers were taken hostage last Monday in at least seven prisons as the country grapples with an escalating security crisis sparked by new policy aimed at tackling the country’s vicious drug gangs.
A guard was reported to have died following confrontation with inmates at a prison in El Oro province on Saturday. But by the evening, President Daniel Noboa publicly congratulated SNAI, police and armed forces on the successful release of prison staff.
Ecuador’s police and military were pictured today aiming to restore order inside the prisons, handout photos showing shirtless prisoners on their knees with their hands on their heads as soldiers wrestled back control.
The end of the hostage crisis is a significant victory for the 36-year-old president, who came to power this month on the back of a campaign to bring drug gangs under control with a string of innovative policy ideas.
But tensions remain high as gangsters revolt against the new ‘state of emergency’ with businesses shut and prisoners still missing across the country.
Prisoners sit huddled, guarded by police and armed forces, during an operation said to be at Turi prison to regain control for the prison, in Cuenca, Ecuador, given as January 14, 2024
Handout picture released by the Ecuadorian Armed Forces showing security forces keeping watch over inmates after regaining control of the Turi prison in Cuenca, on January 14
Ecuadorian soldiers stand guard next to inmates lying in the courtyard after taking control of the Cuenca prison, in Cuenca, Ecuador
Handout picture released by the Ecuadorian Armed Forces showing security forces keeping watch over inmates after regaining control of a prison in Machala, Ecuador, on January 14
Soldiers and police forces regaining control of the Turi prison in Cuenca, on January 14
Weapons seized after security forces regained control of a prison in Machala this weekend
Security forces were still conducting searches and regaining control of the prisons on Sunday, the military said after the initial announcement late Saturday.
Pictures shared by the Ecuadorian Armed Forces showed security personnel watching over prisoners in the Turi prison in Cuenca and a prison in Machala on January 14.
‘The national police are respecting the human rights of these people. We are doing so in a very calm manner,’ Norman Cano, police chief at the Esmeraldas prison, said on social media.
There will now be an investigation to determine those responsible for the hostage-taking, SNAI said in its statement.
Still, Ecuador remains in a state of emergency following the escape of Los Choneros drug baron Adolfo Macías on January 7.
The escape came as President Noboa designated 22 gangs as terrorist groups, making them official military targets.
Mr Noboa declared a state of emergency on January 8, enforced a nationwide curfew and ordered the military onto the streets.
Gangs responded with a wave of national violence, including the seizure of a television news studio on January 9 and attacks on a university.
In Riobamba, around 39 inmates escaped from a prison but some were recaptured by the authorities.
And videos circulating social media showed armed men burning vehicles in the street in Esmeraldas on Tuesday.
Streets in Quito and Guayaquil were quiet on Wednesday morning, with many businesses closed.
Schools were shut nationally, with classes taking place virtually. Residents said it felt like a return to pandemic lockdowns.
‘It’s horrible, the streets are very empty,’ said Guayaquil security guard Rodolfo Tuaz, 40. ‘It’s a very cold environment, as if there were a new COVID.’
Police are yet to share the full details of the events that led to the hostage takings in prisons across the country on January 8.
But the release of the hostages is a significant win for the state, which has been criticised for its inability to deal with Ecuador’s gang problem over the years.
Authorities confirmed police and armed forces are continuing to carry out operations around the country, with the tide appearing to turn.
More than 1,000 people have been arrested since a state of emergency began on Monday, the government claims.
But Ecuador, situated between leading cocaine producers, has a deeply entrenched problem with violent gangs operating within its borders.
The security situation has also worsened since the pandemic, weakening the economy and reducing the number of legitimate avenues for employment.
The number of violent deaths in Ecuador rose to 8,008 last year, nearly doubling the reported figure for 2022, according to government data.
Prisoners lie restrained, bound with zip-ties by police and armed forces, during an operation said to be at Turi prison to regain control for the prison, in Cuenca, January 14, 2024
Ecuadorian soldiers search a man during an operation to control and search for weapons and to enforce the curfew in Quito, Ecuador, 14 January 2024
Ecuadorian soldiers conduct a search during an operation to control and search for weapons and to enforce the curfew in Quito, Ecuador, 14 January 2024
Security forces keeping watch over inmates after regaining control of a prison in Machala, Ecuador, on January 14, 2024
Ecuadorian armed forces stand guard next to inmates with their hands restrained in the courtyard after taking control of the Machala prison, in Machala, Ecuador, January 14, 2024
Members of the military run outside a prison, as Ecuador’s armed forces are entering jails around the country in a bid to restore order, in Cotopaxi, Ecuador, January 14, 2024
A member of the Coast Guard Command sails on a patrol along the Guayas River next to port terminals during an anti-drug trafficking patrol in Guayaquil on January 14, 2024
Since coming to power this month, President Noboa has heralded his renaissance ‘Phoenix Plan’ for security in Ecuador.
Some 20,000 people have been included in his new designation of terrorist groups, he told media on Wednesday.
His plan also includes a new intelligence unit, new tactical weapons for security forces, new high-security prisons, and better security at ports.
The upgrades are expected to cost $800mn (£630mn). In 2022, Ecuador had an estimated GDP of $115bn.
Noboa also plans to hold a plebiscite on future security issues, asking the public to vote on matters including the extradition of criminals.