Ecuador Announces Release of 57 Hostage Guards and Police Officers Held in Multiple Prisons
Hostages freed after prison standoff
Ecuadorian authorities announced on Friday that they had secured the release of 50 guards and seven police officers who were taken hostage by inmates in six different prisons across the country. The hostages were held for more than a day, in what the government described as a retaliation by criminal groups to its efforts to regain control of several large correctional facilities.
The National Service for Attention to Persons Deprived of Liberty, the country’s corrections system, said in a statement that the 57 law enforcement officers were safe, but did not provide details about how they were freed. The hostages were seized on Thursday, when inmates rioted and attacked guards with weapons and explosives.
The hostage crisis was the latest episode in a series of violent acts that have rocked Ecuador in recent weeks, as prison gangs have clashed with authorities and targeted public infrastructure. The government has blamed the violence on a power vacuum triggered by the 2020 killing of Jorge Zambrano, alias “Rasquiña” or “JL”, the leader of the local Los Choneros gang, one of the most powerful and violent in the country.
Explosions hit bridges and buildings
On Friday morning, criminal groups in Ecuador used explosives to damage a bridge linking two cities in the coastal province of El Oro, the latest in a string of attacks that have caused alarm and outrage among the population. No one was injured in the blast, but the bridge was partially destroyed.
National Police commander Luis García told The Associated Press that the explosion was caused by dynamite planted under the bridge. He said that security forces had found and deactivated another explosive device nearby.
Hours earlier, another bridge in Napo province, located within Ecuador’s portion of the Amazon rainforest, was also hit by an explosion. A domestic gas tank with wads of dynamite attached exploded under the bridge, causing minor damage.
These attacks followed four car bombs and three explosive devices that went off across the country in less than 48 hours. The first car bomb exploded on Wednesday night in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, in an area where an office of the country’s corrections system was previously located. Two other car bombs then went off in El Oro province, which is in the country’s southwest.
Another car bomb exploded on Thursday in Quito, this one outside the corrections system’s current offices. An explosive device also went off in Cuenca, located in southern Ecuador’s Andes mountains.
The government has denounced these attacks as terrorist acts by violent prison gangs, which have also taken dozens of guards hostage. A judge ordered six people suspected of involvement in the capital blasts kept in custody while an investigation continued.
Police commander Fausto Martínez said four suspects were arrested in connection with the explosions in Napo. He said three adults and a minor were arrested while they were traveling in a taxi in which authorities discovered blocks of dynamite that “were already synchronized to an explosive device” with a slow fuse. The finding prompted agents to perform two controlled detonations.
A political crisis
Security analyst Daniel Pontón said the chain of events, which took place three weeks after the slaying of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, was a “systematic and clearly planned” attack that had shown the state was ineffective in preventing violence.
“What does state intelligence do in these situations? It has not done anything, although the orders (for explosions) surely come from the prisons through cellphones,” he said.
Pontón thinks the strikes are intended to generate fear among the population and influence politics. Ecuador is set to elect a president in an Oct. 15 runoff vote, after a constitutional crisis led to the dissolution of the National Assembly and a snap election.
“The issue is that we are seeing an escalation of the problem, and given the level of incompetence of the state, later we can expect attacks against the population,” Pontón said. “It is a predictable scenario that would be terrible.”
President Guillermo Lasso has declared a state of emergency across the prison system and allocated millions of dollars to upgrade facilities and security measures. He has also vowed to bring those responsible for the violence to justice and restore order and peace in the country.
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