Oct 11, 2022 - World

Ecuador's deadly gang wars play out inside prisons

Relatives of inmates wait for news after a prison riot in Guayaquil. Photo: Fernando Mendez/AFP via Getty

Two recent gang-related prison riots in Ecuador left 29 inmates dead, including an alleged top financier of organized crime, and 50 more wounded.

Why it matters: The government is struggling to control the prisons — and stop a surge in murders outside them — as it considers new strategies to fight organized crime and drug trafficking.

  • Ecuador is considered a key link in the trafficking of cocaine to Europe and the U.S. The UN's 2022 World Drug Report lists Ecuador as the country with the third-most cocaine seizures.
  • Gangs have been violently struggling for control of those networks.

Driving the news: Leandro "el Patrón" Norero was among the 16 inmates killed last Monday during a fight inside a maximum security prison in the city of Latacunga, during which inmates wielded knives and guns.

  • Norero, who was arrested in May on money laundering charges, reportedly had significant business and real estate investments and was seen as a key link between Ecuadorian criminal groups, Mexican drug cartels and Ecuador's business and political elite.
  • Two days later, 13 inmates were killed and 20 wounded in a separate incident at a prison in Guayaquil.

The big picture: President Guillermo Lasso declared states of emergency in three provinces earlier this year due to rampant violent crime, which he blamed on drug trafficking.

  • His proposals to fight narco-trafficking, “Plan Ecuador,” have similarities to those implemented in Colombia in the 1990s, though the government intends them to be less aggressive.
  • Lasso has also proposed a national referendum to amend the constitution in order to allow the extradition of Ecuadorian citizens accused of money laundering. He's also seeking additional funding and technology from the U.S. and EU.
  • Gen. Laura Richardson, head of U.S. Southern Command, traveled to Ecuador in September 2022 and discussed drug trafficking, regional security and U.S. assistance with Lasso.

Zoom in: Violent crime rates in Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, have climbed to unprecedented levels.

  • 866 out of 2,500 murders recorded in Ecuador this year have occurred in Guayaquil and the surrounding area.
  • Five people were killed and 17 wounded in August in Guayaquil's densely populated Cristo del Consuelo neighborhood during a bombing attack, something never seen before in the country. Ecuador's interior minister called the bombing “a declaration of war against the state."

Go deeper: Axios' interviews Ecuador's president

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