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Prison Wars

November 16, 2021

Drug cartels are going to war in Ecuador prisons and hundreds of inmates are dead. What's causing the ongoing prison wars?

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On December 28, Jorge Luis Zambrano Gonzaléz was assassinated while eating at a restaurant in an Ecuadorian shopping mall. His death would spark a gang war that has turned Ecuador’s prisons into some of the most dangerous places on Earth.

Ecuador, situated on the Pacific ocean between cocaine-producing Colombia and Peru, is a major hub for drug trafficking. Gonzaléz, better known as Rasquiña, was the leader of Los Choneros, a powerful Ecuadorian gang that imports cocaine from neighboring countries and exports it from Pacific ports.

Rasquiña was arrested in 2011 and later sentenced to 20 years in jail. Yet even behind bars, he oversaw Los Choneros’ operations. By 2019, Rasquiña and other gang members were so powerful that the president declared a national prison crisis. To reduce their influence, gang members were redistributed across the prison system.

The policy had the opposite effect as intended: Rather than limit gang influence, it spread it. Los Choneros subsidiaries arose across the country, and rival gangs formed to counter them. A judge later reduced Rasquiña’s sentence, resulting in his early release in June 2020. When he was killed 6 months later, in December, the prisons were primed to explode.

Not wanting to be caught off guard, the gangs began preparing for battle. On February 22, prison authorities seized weapons from a group of Los Choneros inmates, alleging they were to be used for attacks on 4 rival gangs. The next day, the rival gangs took advantage of the disarmament to launch an assault. On February 23, 79 inmates were killed at 4 prisons across Ecuador. More Ecuadorian inmates died that day than in 2019 and 2020 combined.

The prison war has been ongoing since then. In July, a battle left 22 dead. In September, the worst in Ecuadorian history killed 118. After that, the president declared a state of emergency in the country’s prisons. Even so, a battle on Sunday left 68 more people dead.  

Activists and inmates’ families have been calling on the government to protect prisoners and improve their conditions. While the country’s prison system is built to hold 30,000 people, it holds an estimated 40,000. Poor security allows inmates access to weapons, some of which are high-caliber and explosive. Corruption exacerbates the problems: Since last October, the directors of 3 prisons, including the country’s largest, have been dismissed for corruption, misconduct, or organized crime ties.  

The government is spending $24M to improve prison conditions, has set up services to help the families of inmates, and has released some prisoners. The president has deployed troops to guard the prisons, however the courts won’t let the troops into the prisons, saying a longer-term fix is necessary.

Making matters more complicated are the Mexican cartels, which the government and analysts say are waging war against each other through Ecuadorian gangs. In the words of a former Ecuadorian intelligence official, “transnational organized crime has permeated” the prison system.

On Monday, in the wake of the latest riot, the president appointed new heads to the military, prison system, and army. To end Ecuador’s prison war, though, there will be no easy fix.

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