Powerful prison gangs in Ecuador terrorize relatives of inmates

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Gangs operating inside Ecuador’s prisons are taking advantage of the abandonment of the state to expand their power, which has led to extortion of other inmates to access services, families of the inmates said. prisoners and human rights groups.

The South American country’s prison system has faced structural problems for decades, but prison violence has skyrocketed since late 2020, leaving at least 400 dead in frequent clashes since then, prompting concern from the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission. of Human Rights.

The series of riots and other incidents was initially sparked by the death of criminal leader Luis Zambrano González, alias “Rasquiña”, according to prison authorities, sparking a power struggle within his Los Choneros gang, considered one of the most powerful in the prison system.

The population in Ecuador’s prisons has tripled in the last 13 years, according to the United Nations.

Conservative President Guillermo Lasso has released some people early to ease overcrowding, which has reached 36% in recent years.

Lasso also promised to train more guards, but his government has failed to negotiate with the gangs and some officials have been accused of corruption.

The SNAI prison agency is working to install modern monitoring systems and improve conditions, an agency memo seen by Reuters showed.

But the government’s efforts fall short for human rights groups and families concerned about their imprisoned loved ones.

Fabián Maldonado, a taxi driver, fears for the life of his 30-year-old son, who is being held in Ecuador’s most dangerous prison, the Guayaquil Penitentiary, on a charge of attempted homicide.

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His son has been forced to join one of the gangs operating inside, said Maldonado, who sends up to $80 a week – in a country where the minimum wage is $425 a month – so his son can access a mattress and personal hygiene products.

“This government does not care about the lives of the prisoners,” said the 52-year-old. “Any prisoner who enters automatically joins a gang, all he has to do is enter the pavilion and he will have to be with that gang or they could kill him,” he added. 

The penitentiary was the scene of one of the worst incidents of prison violence in Ecuador’s history in September 2021, when at least 122 people were killed.

Some 10 gangs operate in Ecuador’s 36 prisons, according to SNAI, and include 11,000 of the 33,500 prisoners nationwide among their members.

PRISONS AS “HUMAN WAREHOUSES”

The government is working on structural changes, the director of its Strategic Intelligence Center, Fausto Cobo, told the National Assembly’s security committee this month.

Overcrowding was reduced by 20 percentage points, to 10.8%, according to the SNAI.

But there was a setback in the ceasefire negotiation between the gangs. During the period of talks, at least 76 people died.

Lasso’s press office, the Interior Ministry, the Government Ministry and the Human Rights Secretariat directed Reuters inquiries to the SNAI, which did not respond.

This month Lasso, who took office in May 2021, named his fifth SNAI director.

“The State has not done much in relation to the prisons,” said the former director of Army Intelligence, Mario Pazmiño. “(Prisons) are human warehouses, where there are no rights, no type of guarantees.”

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There is a history of gang ceasefire in Ecuador: some groups in Guayaquil signed a nonviolence agreement in 2009 and the Latin Kings gang to “legalize” or abandon crime, in exchange for job training and other benefits.

The public forces have carried out close to 5,000 operations inside prisons so far this year, seizing more than 100 firearms, thousands of ammunition and 13 explosive devices, as well as thousands of dollars in cash.

Extortion can lead to the murder of prisoners whose families cannot send funds.

“The prison system is maintained through the pockets of poor families who have to sell their few belongings to preserve the life of their relative,” said Billy Navarrete, director of the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights.

“So much misery inside the prison, so much killing, so much corruption, we want everything to stop,” asked Lina López, who sends up to $30 a month so that her son, also incarcerated in the Penitentiary, can access a mattress and a shower. .

“Nobody does anything to stop so much pain,” added the 56-year-old woman.

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