Ecuador shaken by days of terror after the disappearance of the gang leader

A sense of terror took over Ecuador on Wednesday, with streets empty, classes canceled and many people afraid to leave their homes after the disappearance of two gang leaders on Monday, sparking prison riots, kidnappings by police and live assaults on a television station.

The violence, which prompted the president to authorize Ecuador’s army to take on the country’s powerful gangs, has left the South American country in dire straits.

“I feel like the world I knew before has disappeared,” said María Ortega, a teacher from Guayaquil, a large coastal city. “You can know how things begin, but not how they will end.”

In Guayaquil, where TC Televisión was briefly seized on Tuesday and authorities said at least eight people died in a wave of violence, public transport resumed and some people ventured out. TC Televisión wasn’t broadcasting, only colored lines appeared on the screen where the news usually appeared.

Life was anything but normal.

In Quito, the capital, military officers patrolled near the presidential palace. Subway stations usually crowded with commuters were mostly deserted. President Daniel Noboa declared a state of emergency on Monday, imposing a nighttime curfew and allowing the military to take control of prisons and patrol the streets.

Police said 70 people were arrested and accused of committing bombings and terrorist acts.

The military has made it clear that the gangs that have sparked unrest in recent days will face a heavy hand.

“From this moment on, every terrorist group,” said Jaime Vela Erazo, commander of the Armed Forces. She said“it became a military target.”

“The present and future of our homeland is at stake and no act of terror will make us give in,” he added. “We will not back down or negotiate. Good, justice and order cannot ask permission or bow their heads to terrorists.”

In recent years, Ecuador has been overwhelmed by drug-related violence, with the rise of around two dozen gangs, fighting for control of lucrative drug trafficking routes and cities.

Ecuadorians live in constant fear, with an increase in murders and robberies and extortions. As criminal gangs have proliferated, the country’s dilapidated prisons have become their headquarters and recruitment centers.

Adolfo Macías, the leader of Los Choneros, disappeared on Sunday from a prison in Guayaquil, largely controlled by his gang. Fabricio Colón Pico, the leader of another gang, Los Lobos, disappeared early Tuesday morning from a prison in the central city of Riobamba.

Violence began to increase after the disappearance of Mr Macías, better known as “Fito”.

As soldiers poured into the prison complex, riots began in many of the country’s 36 prisons, around a quarter of which are believed to be controlled by criminal gangs. Videos posted on social media show guards being held at knifepoint by inmates. In one video, an inmate addressed Mr. Noboa, telling him that the guards would be killed if he sent the military into the prisons.

The violence soon spread to civilian life. Explosions were reported across the country, police officers were kidnapped, several hospitals were seized, and police and armed actors exchanged gunfire, including near a school in Guayaquil.

The violence reached a fever pitch Tuesday afternoon, when masked men briefly took control of TC Televisión in Guayaquil during a live broadcast, taking the hosts and staff hostage and demanding they send a message to the government not to interfere “with mafias”.

Not long after, Noboa, the president, declared an “internal armed conflict” and ordered the military to “neutralize” the country’s two dozen gangs, which the government labeled “terrorist organizations.”

Gang leaders like Mr. Macías oversaw their criminal networks from behind bars using contraband electronics. In addition to plans to move Mr. Macías from his cell, where he was serving a 34-year sentence, to a maximum-security facility, Noboa’s government has recently taken measures to increase security in prisons and deny leaders access to prison facilities. outside world.

Experts said Mr. Macías may have learned of the government’s plan to move him and other high-profile inmates to a maximum-security facility through a leak, and that may have prompted his escape and the prison riots .

Ms. Ortega, a teacher from Guayaquil, said she understood that the measures taken this week by Noboa’s government were necessary after prison escapes and violent attacks.

“I suppose this is something the government needs to do,” he said. “I hope they have the clarity to understand that that’s not all they need to do.”