Ecuador is experiencing a new major prison crisis. The country’s recently elected president, Daniel Noboa, declared a state of emergency throughout the country, including in prisons, on Monday, January 8, following the escape of Adolfo Macias, alias “Fito”, leader of the largest criminal gang, considered public enemy number one.

“I have just signed the decree on the state of emergency so that the armed forces have all the political and legal support in their actions,” said Mr. Noboa in a video broadcast by the presidency, while uprisings agitate the prisons in the country.

The army is thus authorized to operate for sixty days to maintain order in the streets and penitentiary establishments of the country where a curfew has been declared between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. local time.

Security forces “are hard at work to find this extremely dangerous individual” who allegedly fled on Sunday “a few hours” before a control operation carried out in the prison of Guayaquil (South), declared the government communications secretary , Roberto Izurieta, referring to “infiltrations”.

Investigation against two prison officials

The prosecution announced on Monday, on the social network years in prison for organized crime, drug trafficking and murder.

On Sunday, the police chief admitted to the press that he was “not found in the place where he should have been”, a high security cell in the port city penitentiary. The prosecution then opened an investigation into the “alleged escape” of the leader of the “Choneros”, a gang of around 8,000 men according to experts, which had become the main player in the flourishing drug trade in Ecuador.

“Fito” had already escaped in 2013, with other prisoners, from a high security prison and was recaptured after three months. Roberto Izurieta lamented that “the level of infiltration” of criminal groups within the state “is very high” and called Ecuador’s prison system a “failure.” “The search continues (…) He will be found, he must be found,” he said, calling him “a criminal with extremely dangerous characteristics, whose activities have characteristics of terrorism.”

Prison guards sequestered

“We will not negotiate with terrorists and we will not stop until we have returned peace to all Ecuadorians,” Mr. Noboa insisted.

Police and soldiers entered heavily armed several prisons in the country, particularly those where guards were sequestered. Images posted on social media, which could not be verified, showed guards being held at knifepoint by hooded men, pleading with the government to “act with caution” and “not send troops into prisons.”

Videos released by the armed forces later showed detainees lying in prison courtyards with their hands on their heads. The prison administration (SNAI) announced that no one was injured following these “incidents”.

“We have taken measures that will allow us to regain control” of the prisons, President Noboa underlined.

Homicides increased by 800%.

The name “Fito” has made headlines in recent months following the assassination, in early August 2023, of one of the main candidates for the presidential election. Fernando Villavicencio, a former journalist and parliamentarian, had reported death threats from the leader of the Choneros shortly before his execution.

Sporting a large beard, “Fito”, known to be very charismatic, studied law in prison until obtaining his lawyer’s degree. A song in his glory by a Mexican group, with a video clip and images filmed in his cell, was recently broadcast on social networks.

A country that has become a logistics center for shipping cocaine to the United States and Europe, Ecuador is ravaged by the violence of gangs and drug traffickers. Homicides increased nearly 800% between 2018 and 2023, from 6 to 46 per 100,000 residents.

Prisons are the scene of recurring massacres between rival gangs. Since February 2021, there have been at least a dozen attacks, resulting in more than 460 detainee deaths. The authorities have so far proven incapable of firmly regaining control. Mr. Noboa was elected in the fall of 2023 on the promise of curbing insecurity in the country and regaining control of prisons.