© Reuters. Soldiers keep watch outside the Zonal 8 prison after Ecuador’s President Daniel Noboa declared a 60-day state of emergency following the disappearance of Adolfo Macias, leader of the Los Choneros criminal gang, from the prison where he was serving a 34-ye
By Alexandra Valencia
QUITO (Reuters) – Military and police operations took place around Ecuador on Thursday in response to a wave of violence and the detention of nearly 180 prison staff by inmates, with the government pledging to wage war on crime gangs they blame for the unrest.
The dramatic spike in violence this week – including the on-air storming of a TV station, unexplained explosions in a variety of cities, and the kidnapping of police officers – appears to be a response to plans by new President Daniel Noboa to tackle a dire security situation.
Noboa has pledged, among other things, to hold jailed gang leaders in new high-security prisons. The government is expected to share details about the planned facilities on Thursday.
Noboa has declared a 60-day state of emergency, sending the military onto the streets and naming 22 gangs as terrorist groups, and said on Wednesday U.S. aid was expected within days.
The 36-year-old son of a banana baron, who took office in November, is being supported by the often-fractious national assembly, which voted unanimously late on Wednesday to back his security efforts so far.
There has been little information released by authorities on the status of 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 on the inside,” said Carlos Ordonez, vice-president of the prison workers’ association. “No one goes in, no one comes out, we don’t have exact information.”
Ordonez said the military has taken over management of the sites where there are hostages.
Videos purporting to show prison staff being subjected to extreme violence, including shooting and hanging, have circulated on social media, although armed forces commander Rear Admiral Jaime Vela said on Wednesday no hostage had been killed.
Reuters could not immediately verify the videos.
“For now we understand and hope that it’s not our colleagues in the videos… We think they are all still alive,” said Ordonez, adding that his group has filed a habeas corpus petition to try and 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 ask for the liberation of my colleagues and then for better working conditions,” Ordonez said.
Prisons agency SNAI said in a statement on Thursday there had been disturbances overnight in two prisons and the escape of three inmates from another.
Operations to liberate the hostages were ongoing, it added.
Ecuador borders cocaine-producing Colombia and Peru and has become a major drug shipment point. While its neighbors stepped up controls on their frontiers this week, the military in Ecuador conducted raids and weapons seizures around the country.
Vela said on Wednesday that 329 people, mostly from gangs including Los Choneros, Los Lobos and Los Tiguerones, had been detained since the president declared a state of emergency on Monday.
Police officers have also been the target of kidnappings. Police had reported nine being held earlier this week but it was unclear how many were still captive as of Thursday.
Streets in Quito and Guayaquil remained quieter than usual on Thursday, with school classes taking place virtually and many people working from home.
Images of gunmen taking over a TV studio at public broadcaster TC on Tuesday afternoon were carried live for about 20 minutes and made headlines around the world.
Alina Manrique, a 39-year-old journalist who was among those held hostage, said she had feared she was going to be 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 all the world to see that they were capable of doing this at two in the afternoon, of assaulting a TV channel and putting 50 journalists, a city, a country on their knees,” Manrique said.
Manrique’s colleague Jose Luis Calderon told Reuters on Wednesday that the gunmen said several times they were part of La Firma, a gang associated with Los Choneros, one of the gangs named 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 the state of emergency.