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All remaining hostages seized in Ecuador prison riots freed

By AFP - Jan 15,2024 - Last updated at Jan 15,2024

Handout photo released by the Ecuadorean armed forces showing security forces keeping watch over inmates after soldiers and police forces regained control of the Turi prison in Cuenca, Ecuador, on Sunday (AFP Photo by Ecuadorean Armed Forces)

QUITO — All remaining 136 prison guards and administrative workers who were seized as hostages during prison riots in Ecuador were freed on Saturday night, prison authorities said.

Neary 180 prison guards and civil servants had been taken hostage by rioting inmates after President Daniel Noboa launched a military crackdown on criminal groups this week, sparking a deadly confrontation with narco gangs in the South American country.

“Security protocols and the joint work of the police and the national army enabled the release of all the hostages who were being held in various prisons across the country,” the SNAI prison authorities said in a statement on X.

Images broadcast by the police showed the guards, many in tears, exhausted and supported by their colleagues shortly after their release.

“We are released...Thank God we all got out safely,” a prison employee said in a video posted on social media, waving the Ecuadorian flag and standing in front of one prison in southern Cotopaxi province.

Earlier on Saturday, 41 hostages had been freed, including 24 guards and 17 administration employees.

Noboa celebrated the latest releases in a post on X.

“Congratulations to the patriotic, professional and courageous work of the armed forces, national police and the SNAI... for achieving the release of the prison guards and administrative staff held in the detention centers of Azuay, Canar, Esmeraldas, Cotopaxi, Tungurahua, El Oro and Loja,” he wrote.


State of emergency 


The crisis was triggered by the escape from Guayaquil prison of one of the country’s most powerful narcotics gang bosses, Jose Adolfo Macias, known by the alias “Fito”, who headed the country’s main gang “Los Choneros”.

Riots erupted in at least five prisons and attacks on security forces following his escape.

At least 19 people have died in the violence, including civilians, prison guards and police in the last week, according to SNAI authorities. 

Authorities said eight “terrorists” were killed and 27 escaped prisoners were recaptured.

The SNAI has said it will investigate the causes and those responsible for the prison riots.

Hundreds of military personnel and police have been deployed in a manhunt for Fito since Monday, while Noboa announced a 60-day nationwide state of emergency and a nightly curfew.

Neighbouring Colombia, the world’s largest cocaine producer, put its army on high alert Friday over the possibility that Fito could cross the border into its territory.

Once a bastion of peace situated between major cocaine producers, Ecuador has been plunged into crisis after years of expansion by the transnational cartels that use its ports to ship the drug to the United States and Europe.


‘We are going to win’ 


Noboa has vowed not to bow before the violence, giving orders to “neutralise” the criminal groups responsible.

“I believe we are going to win and I will not stop fighting until we do,” he told the BBC on Friday.

Narco gangs often use prisons as criminal offices, from where they manage drug trafficking, order assassinations, administer the proceeds of crime and fight to the death with rivals for power.

Ecuador’s murder rate quadrupled between 2018 and 2022, as the criminal gangs found a foothold in the country.

Last year was the worst yet, with 7,800 murders and a record 220 tonnes of drugs seized.

Under Noboa’s presidency, the country has introduced two “super maximum” security prisons with a capacity for more than 3,000 people, with proposals for future “prison ships” also on the table.

Much of the country’s increasing violence has been concentrated in prisons, where spectacularly brutal clashes between inmates have left more than 460 dead, many beheaded or burned alive, since February 2021.

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