Ecuador’s Litoral prison in Guayaquil was the site of a bloodbath on Wednesday as the government lost control of the penitentiary and rival gangs battled it out, resulting in at least 116 inmates dead. It is the worst bloodbath in the history of the country’s prison system, but these sorts of massacres have become common since the return of neoliberalism under Lenin Moreno and Guillermo Lasso.
President Lasso confirmed the deaths in a press conference last night, admitting that the government has yet to take back control of the Litoral prison. Lasso has declared a 60-day state of exception for the country’s prison system, which authorizes the military to enter the jails to restore order.
A fight reportedly broke out due to a dispute between the ‘Los Lobos’ and ‘Los Choneros’ prison gangs. Videos which made it onto social media from inside the prison show inmates with high-caliber weapons and bloodied bodies covering the floor. Authorities have confirmed that at least six of the deaths were due to decapitation.
In February, Ecuador’s prison slaughter made the headlines as battles broke out simultaneously in four different Ecuadorian prison facilities, leaving 79 dead. Another event in July left 27 people dead in the Cotopaxi prison. Authorities say grenades and explosives were used among inmates.
The head of Ecuador’s prison system (SNAI) Bolivar Garzon said, “It really is a tragedy, something tremendous is happening for a fight between organized criminal groups in the search for internal power to reach these levels, the situation is truly terrible.”
Annual violent deaths in Ecuadorian prisons were in single figures during the government of Rafael Correa, the year he left power (2017) it was eight. However, following austerity measures under the neoliberal Lenin Moreno government, violent deaths began to skyrocket. Within two years, the annual figure quadrupled to 32, and in 2020, it reached 52. During the first nine months of 2021, that figure stands at 226 and counting.
Moreno, who governed over a general rise in poverty and unemployment in Ecuador, also scrapped the prison guard training academies built by Correa. As a result, poorly trained staff are now less equipped to deal with the serious problems which have arisen. Moreno also closed the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, created by Correa in 2007, precisely to focus on managing the prison system. Its functions were merged into that of the Interior Ministry.
Billy Navarrete, Director of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Guayaquil, criticized Lenin Moreno’s decision at the time saying, “It is a regression, without a doubt, we had a specialized and technical approach to the prison problem; but now there is no sign that there will be such an entity”.
Prominent human rights lawyer Harold Burbano also condemned the move, saying; “They want to reduce costs and in that sense, we’ve heard from various members of the Interior Ministry that the prison guards will merge with the Police, and this is very worrying from the point of view of human rights.”