QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — The number of inmates who have died in riots at multiple prisons in Ecuador this week increased to 79 on Wednesday after authorities regained control of the facilities in three cities.
Hundreds of police officers and military personnel converged on the prisons after apparently coordinated fights broke out in the maximum-security wings as rival gangs fought for leadership within the detention centers. Authorities have said the clashes that began Monday night were precipitated by a search for weapons carried out at the facilities in the South American nation.
The national agency responsible for the prisons said 37 inmates died in the Pacific coast city of Guayaquil, 34 in the southern city of Cuenca and eight in the central city of Latacunga. Some 70% of the country’s prison population lives in the centers where the unrest occurred.
On Tuesday, television footage showed some prisoners jumping from high walls and others forcing open prison doors, but police and the military stopped them. Photographs and videos on social media show alleged inmates who had been decapitated and dismembered amid pools of blood.
Prisons Director Edmundo Moncayo said Tuesday that two groups were trying to gain “criminal leadership within the detention centers.”
The prisons’ maximum security areas tend to house inmates linked to killings, drug trafficking, extortion and other major crimes.
Deadly prison riots have happened relatively frequently in recent years in Ecuador, whose prisons were designed for some 27,000 inmates but house about 38,000.
Police said inmates in two prisons in Guayaquil tried to continue fighting Wednesday. At least 400 officers reinforced security there and blocked traffic.
Ricardo Camacho, a security analyst and former prisons undersecretary, ruled out that the clashes have any relation with international criminal gangs or drug traffickers and said they are a purely national issue.
“They are disputes between national gangs that seek to monopolize the power that was left vacant in the prisons by the death of a criminal leader in December, and that has given way to this massacre with violence never before seen,” Camacho told The Associated Press. “There are prisoners beheaded, dismembered, their hearts removed. The prisoners had several hours to do what they wanted, and when the police arrived, they did not put up much resistance.”
Previous riots had ended with a dozen or so inmates dead. Camacho said Ecuador’s prison system is broken and needs to be restructured to rehabilitate inmates.
Representatives of the United Nations in a statement following the clashes called for “a prompt and impartial investigation, the corresponding sanction to those responsible and management of the crisis in accordance with the standards of the constitution and international human rights instruments.”