Armed and hooded men burst into the set of TC Television, a public channel in Guayaquil (southwest of Ecuador), on the afternoon of Tuesday January 9, taking journalists and others hostage. employees, according to images broadcast live by this channel. The motives of the attackers are, for the moment, unknown.

“Don’t shoot, please don’t shoot!” “, shouts a woman while shots ring out, while the attackers, armed with pistols, shotguns and some with grenades, force the people present, terrified, to the ground. “Thanks to the intervention [in the premises] of TC Television, our police units have managed so far to arrest several subjects and [seize] evidence related to the crime,” the Ecuadorian police communicated on X after declaring that an evacuation of workers at the television station was underway.

In the images broadcast, one of the attackers is hooded, others wear hoods or caps. Still others have their faces uncovered or film themselves with their cell phones, while several of them form with the fingers of both hands the usual signs of recognition of the criminal gangs linked to drug trafficking which are causing a reign of terror in Ecuador. Complaints are audible in the background. “They came in to kill us, my God protect us,” one of the captive journalists sent to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent in a WhatsApp message.

Amid the gunfire, 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 at least ten of the attackers were arrested, AFP noted.

A country in a state of “internal armed conflict”

At the same time, the President of Ecuador, Daniel Noboa, declared his country in a state of “internal armed conflict”, on the third day of an unprecedented security crisis. He ordered the “neutralization” of criminal groups involved in drug trafficking, of which he provided an exhaustive list, while emphasizing the need for the armed forces to act “with respect for human rights,” according to a decree. made public on Tuesday. This presidential text orders “the mobilization and intervention of the armed forces and the national police (…) to guarantee sovereignty and national integrity against organized crime, terrorist organizations and non-state belligerents”.

With this new resounding incident on the TC Television set on Tuesday, a security crisis culminates that nothing seems to be able to stem. These last three days have been marked by the escape of dangerous gang leaders, cascading mutinies in prisons, the proclamation of a state of emergency and the kidnapping of police officers in particular. “These are extremely difficult days”, the executive having taken “the important decision to fight head-on against these terrorist threats”, commented Tuesday the communications secretary of the presidency, Roberto Izurieta. On Tuesday evening, the head of US diplomacy for Latin America, Brian Nichols, declared on X that the US State Department was “extremely concerned” about the situation in Ecuador.

The images broadcast on social networks in recent days, difficult to verify, give an idea of ​​this violence and fuel the impression of chaos which is gradually settling in certain localities of the country: Molotov cocktail attacks, cars set on fire, shootings randomly on police officers, scenes of panic… In the large port of Guayaquil, plunged into psychosis, many hotel establishments and restaurants have closed their doors to the public, while army vehicles patrol the streets. In the capital Quito, gripped by fear, stores and shopping centers also closed prematurely, with traffic jams much heavier than usual on Tuesday evening. The Ministry of Education ordered the temporary closure of all schools in the country in the evening.

Execution of at least two prison guards

The crisis began on Sunday with the spectacular escape of Adolfo Macias, alias “Fito”, 44, the leader of the Choneros, a gang of around eight thousand men, according to experts, which has become the main player in the thriving drug trade in Ecuador. Often described as public enemy number one, suspected of being involved in the resounding assassination of one of the main presidential candidates in August 2022, the man vanished from a high security establishment located in the vast complex in Guayaquil, where he had been serving a thirty-four-year prison sentence since 2011 for organized crime, drug trafficking and murder. He had already escaped from a high security prison in 2013 and was recaptured three months later.

His escape was followed by several mutinies and hostage-taking of guards in various prisons, all relayed by frightening videos broadcast on social networks showing the captives threatened by the knives of masked inmates. On Tuesday, new videos emerged, this time showing the execution of at least two guards, by shooting and hanging. In a press release, the prison administration (SNAI) reported that 139 of its staff are currently still held hostage in five prisons across the country. SNAI has not commented on the execution videos.

As of Sunday, heavily armed police and soldiers had entered several prisons, notably where guards were sequestered. Security forces released dramatic footage of the attacks, showing hundreds of detainees in their underwear, hands on their heads and unceremoniously forced to lie on the ground.

These images are reminiscent in every way of the communication of the Salvadoran president, Nayib Bukele, credited with having re-established, thanks to his “war” against gangs, security in his country, at the cost however of a restriction of the rights of prisoners, according to human rights organizations.

Ecuadorian prisons, overcrowded and with more than 31,000 inmates, are regularly the scene of massacres between rival gangs, at least twelve since February 2021 which have left more than 460 inmates dead.

A president elected on the promise of restoring security

The youngest president in the history of Ecuador, Daniel Noboa, 36, elected in November on the promise of restoring security, declared a state of emergency for sixty days throughout the country on Monday. The army is thus authorized to maintain order in the streets (with a nighttime curfew) and prisons. With clearly little effect so far: seven police officers were kidnapped during the night from Monday to Tuesday. Explosions were also reported in an attack on a police station, the home of the President of the National Court and vehicles were set on fire. The local press spoke of a “night of terror” and a “failed state”.

A video posted on social networks shows three of the police officers kidnapped and forced, under threat of handguns, to read a message addressed to the head of state: “You have declared war, you are going to have war (… ). You have declared a state of emergency, we declare the police, civilians and military spoils of war. »

New humiliation on Tuesday, the authorities announced the escape of another drug trafficker, Fabricio Colon Pico, one of the leaders of Los Lobos, a rival criminal gang of the Choneros. He was arrested Friday for the offense of kidnapping and for his alleged responsibility in a plot to assassinate the attorney general.

The government deplored a “very high level of infiltration” of criminal groups within the state and described Ecuador’s prison system as a “failure.” “We will not negotiate with terrorists and we will not stop until we have returned peace to all Ecuadorians,” President Noboa insisted on Monday.

Once a haven of peace, Ecuador has become a logistics center for shipping cocaine – produced in neighboring Peru and Colombia – to the United States and Europe. The country is today ravaged by the violence of criminal gangs, most of them simple street gangs a few years ago, which have become bloody players in drug trafficking. The number of homicides increased by almost 800% between 2018 and 2023, from six to forty-six per 100,000 inhabitants.