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Ecuador prison riot leaves 31 dead as gangs war in packed facility

Guayaquil, Ecuador — Some 2,700 soldiers on Tuesday stormed a prison in Ecuador, retaking control of the facility as the death toll from a riot that started over the weekend rose to 31 inmates, authorities said. The latest battle between rival gangs at the overcrowded, violence-hobbled Guayas 1 prison in the port city of Guayaquil has left 31 people dead and 14 wounded, the public prosecutor's office said, updating an earlier death toll from 18.

Riots regularly pit prison gangs with links to drug traffickers against one another in Ecuador, a country that has recently emerged as a key player in the South American cocaine trade.

Military forces stand guard outside the Guayas 1 prison where a days-long riot between rival gangs claimed at least 31 lives in the port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador, July 25, 2023. MARCOS PIN/AFP/Getty

A string of bloody clashes has claimed at least 420 lives in Ecuadoran prisons since 2021 — many of the victims beheaded or burnt alive, others shot as widespread corruption among guards allows inmates to obtain guns and explosives.

Among those wounded in the latest round of violence was a police officer, said the prosecutor's office.

The armed forces, for its part, said soldiers and police entered Guayas 1 on Tuesday to put down the riot that started Saturday and had left an initial toll of six dead inmates.

At least one of the dead had been beheaded, according to a government decree issued Tuesday announcing a 60-day state of emergency in all Ecuador's prisons.

The government, via its communications secretariat Segcom, said "total control" had been regained at Guayas 1, which houses over 5,600 inmates.

Officers seized nine rifles, a grenade launcher, four pistols, two revolvers and 1,000 rounds of ammunition, according to officials.

The public prosecutor's office on Tuesday announced the opening of a murder investigation over the deaths as well as a terrorism probe, due to the "explosions and the quantity of weapons and ammunition found inside the prison."

Relatives wait for information outside the Guayas 1 prison amid a riot caused by fighting between rival gangs, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, July 24, 2023. MARCOS PIN/AFP/Getty

Dozens of people gathered outside Guayas 1 on Tuesday, frantic for news about their loved ones inside.

Some carried white balloons and placards proclaiming: "We want peace."

"The prisoners don't interest them (the authorities)," said a woman desperate for news on her husband, and who did not want to be named as she feared for her safety. "It's as if they (the inmates) were rats. They are human beings!" 

Family members said they feared the prisoners would be moved to other facilities — something which in the past has resulted in deadly clashes between newcomers and the old guard, who are often aligned with rival groups.

President Guillermo Lasso in a message on social media insisted the government "will never yield" to criminal violence. He posted photos of heavily-armed security forces standing guard over dozens of prisoners with naked torsos and hands tied.

The Prison Observatory, a rights group, claimed on social media that inmates at Guayas 1 had been "without food and water for more than three days."

Mounted police guard the outside of the Guayas 1 prison a day after a fight between rival gangs left 31 inmates dead in Guayaquil, Ecuador, July 24, 2023. MARCOS PIN/AFP/Getty

Fewer than 3,000 guards are in charge of more than 31,000 inmates in 36 prisons around Ecuador, many of them overpopulated.

A committee appointed by Lasso to look into prison conditions last year found that the country's penitentiaries were akin to "torture centers."

Guayaquil, on Ecuador's southern Pacific coast, is the country's largest city, biggest port and economic hub, but in recent years has become the increasingly bloody center of a gang turf war.

The location of the city, home to three million of Ecuador's 18 million people, makes it a strategic launch point for shipments of drugs to the United States and Europe.

Tucked between Colombia and Peru, the world's main cocaine producers, once peaceful Ecuador has seized 455 tons of drugs since May 2021.

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