Live shooting on a television set, prison guards or police officers taken hostage, schools and stores closed: Ecuador is plunged, according to its president, into an “internal armed conflict” with drug trafficking gangs which has already caused minus ten dead.

In a decree published Tuesday, January 9, on the third day of this security crisis, Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa ordered “the mobilization and intervention of the armed forces and the national police” to “guarantee sovereignty and integrity against organized crime, terrorist organizations and non-state belligerents.

Mr. Noboa, 36, the youngest president in the country’s history and elected in November on the promise of restoring security, declared a state of emergency for sixty days throughout the country on Monday, the day after the escape from a feared gang leader. On Tuesday, he provided an exhaustive list of criminal gangs that he wants to “neutralize,” emphasizing the need for the armed forces to act “with respect for human rights.”

Ecuador, a country of 18 million people once a haven of peace, is ravaged by violence after becoming the main export point for cocaine produced in Peru and Colombia. Street murders increased by 800% between 2018 and 2023, from 6 to 46 per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2023, 7,800 homicides were recorded and 220 tons of drugs seized.

Escape of two gang leaders

Adolfo Macias, alias “Fito”, 44, leader of the Choneros – a gang of around 8,000 men according to experts – fled from Guayaquil prison (Southwest) on Sunday. On Tuesday, Fabricio Colon Pico, a leader of Los Lobos, another powerful gang, also escaped. Peru announced the same day that it had declared a state of emergency along its more than 1,400 kilometers of border with Ecuador and strengthened its surveillance.

“President Daniel Noboa, you have our full and unreserved support. Please don’t give in,” said former Socialist President Rafael Correa (2007-2017), who resides in Belgium and had supported Mr. Noboa’s presidential opponent, Luisa Gonzalez, in the presidential election. “Today is the time for national unity. Organized crime has declared war on the State, and the State must win,” he added in a video broadcast overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday.

“Postpone travel plans” for Ecuador

The crisis leads to international reactions. On Wednesday, Spain said it was following the situation with “concern” and assured of supporting “democratic institutions”, through its Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, who displayed his “confidence” in a “soon return to normality”.

France has asked its nationals who would consider going to Ecuador, known for its Galapagos Islands, to “postpone their plans”, according to a press release published on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “We invite French nationals residing in Ecuador to adopt the greatest caution and to carefully monitor the evolution of the situation, referring to the instructions of the French Embassy in Quito. »

China, which has suspended reception of the public in its embassy and consulate on site, “evaluates the security situation” and “supports” the action of the authorities to restore order, declared a spokesperson for the diplomacy Chinese, Mao Ning. Russia has asked its nationals to “take into account the instability of the situation when considering travel to Ecuador” and “avoid going to public places”. Moscow has confidence in Ecuadorian authorities to restore law and order “on their own, without external interference,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova added.

The United States is “extremely concerned about the violence” and “ready to provide assistance,” the head of American diplomacy for Latin America, Brian Nichols, said on Tuesday. Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru expressed their support for Ecuador.

Television set invaded, prison guards executed

On Tuesday, armed men burst onto the set of a public television station in Guayaquil, briefly taking journalists and employees of the channel hostage. Amid the shooting, the broadcast of these surreal images continued live for several minutes. Until, apparently, the police intervened shouting “Police! Police ! “. No one appears to have been killed or injured in the raid and thirteen attackers were arrested, according to police.

After the escape of “Fito”, several mutinies and hostage takings by guards affected various prisons, relayed by frightening videos broadcast on social networks showing the captives threatened by the knives of masked inmates. On Tuesday, new videos showed the execution of at least two guards, by shooting and hanging.

The prison administration reported 139 members of its staff being held hostage in five prisons across the country, without commenting on the videos. Security forces have released striking images of their interventions since Sunday in various penitentiaries, showing hundreds of detainees in their underwear, hands on their heads and lying on the ground.

With the state of emergency, the army is authorized to maintain order in the streets (with a nighttime curfew) and prisons. But numerous incidents have been reported, including the kidnapping of seven police officers. In the port city of Guayaquil, where criminal groups are all-powerful, the violence left eight dead and three injured, according to the police chief. Two police officers were also “viciously murdered by armed criminals” in Nobol, near Guayaquil.

The images broadcast on social networks, difficult to verify, fuel the impression of chaos spreading to certain localities: Molotov cocktail attacks, cars set on fire, random shootings at police officers, scenes of panic… In Guayaquil, number of hotels and restaurants have closed and the army is patrolling, it was noted. In the capital Quito, stores and shopping centers also closed prematurely.

The Ministry of Education on Tuesday evening ordered the closure of all schools in the country until Friday. The offenders “committed bloody and unprecedented acts in the history of the country (…), but this attempt will fail,” declared Admiral Jaime Vela, head of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces.