What’s behind the worst prison massacre in Ecuador’s history?

The numbers are staggering, and the images of the violence that erupted inside several of Ecuador’s prisons in late February, even more so.

At least 79 inmates died in clashes between rioting rival gangs in prisons in Cuenca, Guayaquil and Latacunga. Even more disturbing is the extreme cruelty and violence of their members, which was exposed by the images of beheaded and dismembered bodies circulated on social media.

The South-American country is no stranger to prison violence. Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno has had to order a state of emergency in the country’s prisons twice in the past two years. But what happened to bring about the worst prison massacre in the country’s history?

Firstly, an increase in drug trafficking. More than a third of the drugs produced in Colombia transit through Ecuador on their way to Europe and the United States. Ecuadorian gangs are not just arguing for the sake of it; in recent years, Ecuador has become the cocaine highway to the U.S. and Europe. This can be attributed to a shift in the strategy of Colombian drug traffickers, which means that more than a third of the growing cocaine production in Colombia currently reaches Ecuador.

Secondly, austerity. The increase in drug trafficking has translated to an increase in Ecuador’s prison population, which has not been matched by an improvement in monitoring and surveillance capabilities. In addition, as part of the austerity plans agreed with the International Monetary Fund, these sectors have also been affected by cuts, which at the time led to a wave of protests.

The government has had to turn to the army to deal with the violence in prisons. One of the consequences of the shortage of resources is a 70% deficit in the personnel needed to oversee prison security. With numbers like that, prison wardens have to be responsible for an average of almost 27 inmates, while the international standard recommends a ratio of one warden for every nine prisoners. This may help to explain the relative impunity with which drug traffickers operate inside prisons and the abundance of weapons inside penitentiary centres.

Lastly, overcrowding, which continues to hinder the proper management of Ecuadorian prisons. According to the Human Rights Council (HRC), Ecuador’s prison capacity is 28,500 people. But in May 2019, when the state declared the first state of emergency, there were 41,836 inmates in its prisons: an overpopulation of 42%.

As Insight Crime explains, overcrowding in prisons is a regional phenomenon that leads to human rights problems and a lack of control over prison systems. Being forced to intern the members of rival gangs in the same centres has also contributed to the bloody clashes in prisons.


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