Ecuador president says country is at war as gangs hold prison staff hostage | World News - Hindustan Times
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Ecuador president says country is at war as gangs hold prison staff hostage

Reuters |
Jan 11, 2024 03:47 AM IST

The government has said the latest wave of violence is a reaction to the president's plan to build new high-security prisons for gang leaders.

Ecuador President Daniel Noboa said on Wednesday that his country was "at war" with drug gangs who are holding more than 130 prison guards and other staff hostage, amid a dramatic surge in violence that saw gunmen briefly take over a TV live broadcast and explosions in multiple cities.

Soldiers check pedestrians for weapons at a check-point on a north-bound highway in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.(AP)
Soldiers check pedestrians for weapons at a check-point on a north-bound highway in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.(AP)

Noboa on Tuesday named 22 gangs as terrorist organizations, making them official military targets. The president took power in November pledging to tackle a growing security problem caused by a rise in drug-trafficking gangs transporting cocaine through Ecuador.

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"We are at war and we cannot cede in the face of these terrorist groups," Noboa told radio station Canela Radio on Wednesday. He estimated that some 20,000 crime gang members are active in Ecuador.

The hostage-takings, which began in the early hours of Monday, and the apparent escape of Los Choneros gang leader Adolfo Macias from prison over the weekend, spurred Noboa to declare a 60-day state of emergency.

Also Read | Chinese embassy in Ecuador suspends services amid internal armed conflict

He hardened the decree on Tuesday after a series of explosions around the country and the cinematic takeover of the TC television station by balaclava-clad gunmen live on air.

The government has said the latest wave of violence is a reaction to Noboa's plan to build new high-security prisons for gang leaders. Noboa told the radio station a design for two new facilities will be made public tomorrow.

"We are making every effort to recover all the hostages," Noboa said, adding that the armed forces have taken over the rescue effort. "We are doing everything possible, and the impossible, to get them safe and sound."

The SNAI prisons agency has said guards account for 125 of the hostages, while 14 are administrative staff. Eleven people were freed on Tuesday, it said.

Videos circulating on social media showed prison staff being subjected to extreme violence, including being shot and hanging. Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the videos.

Noboa said the country will begin to deport foreign prisoners, especially Colombians, this week to reduce prison populations and spending.

There are some 1,500 Colombians in prison in Ecuador, Noboa said, and prisoners from Colombia, Peru and Venezuela account for 90% of jailed foreigners.

"We are investing more on those 1,500 people than on school breakfasts for our children. It's not an extradition, it's based on previous international agreements," Noboa said.

Ecuadorean sentences would only be recognized in Colombia if prisoners arrive via formal repatriation, agreed with Colombian authorities, Colombian Justice Minister Nestor Osuna told journalists. If Colombian prisoners are simply expelled, they would only be jailed if they have charges pending at home.

"If there is an expulsion we'll look at how many people, if they arrive at the border, really need to be detained by Colombian authorities," Osuna said, expressing his "genuine solidarity" with the Ecuadorean people.

Colombia said on Wednesday it would increase military presence and controls along its nearly 600-kilometer (370-mile) border with Ecuador.

LAWMAKERS BACK EFFORTS

The best way to safeguard the economy and foreign investment would be to improve security and ensure the rule of law, Noboa told the radio station.

Lawmakers on Tuesday expressed their support for the armed forces and backed Noboa's efforts. Noboa has a majority coalition in congress, after his party allied itself both with the leftist movement of former President Rafael Correa and a Christian party.

"I don't need their approval right now for what we are doing," Noboa said, referencing the decrees, "but I have asked for their support."

"The challenge for Noboa will be to make lasting headway in the fight against crime beyond any immediate-term, military-led pacification," consulting firm Teneo said in a note.

Noboa met with the U.S. ambassador on Tuesday afternoon and other ambassadors on Wednesday.

The U.S. has pledged aid within days, Noboa said. His $800 million security plan includes $200 million of weapons from the United States.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan condemned the "recent criminal attacks by armed groups" on Wednesday and said Washington was "willing to take concrete steps to improve our cooperation" with Ecuador's government.

Peruvian defense minister Jorge Chavez told reporters his country was investigating possible smuggling by members of its armed forces of explosives and grenades which may have been used by gangs in Ecuador, after an audit of equipment over the last six months determined "there is a possibility" some munitions had gone missing.

There have been 70 arrests since Monday in response to incidents including the TV station takeover, the Ecuadorean police said earlier on Wednesday.

Four police officers, who authorities say were kidnapped by criminals between Monday and Tuesday, are still being held.

Police said they were identifying three bodies found in a burned-out car south of Guayaquil overnight and two police officers were killed by armed men on Tuesday in Guayas province, where Guayaquil is located.

Streets in Quito and Guayaquil were quieter than usual on Wednesday, with many businesses closed or working remotely.

The Chinese embassy and consulates will be temporarily shut, said China, a major investor in Ecuador.

Schools were closed nationally, with classes taking place virtually. Residents said it felt like a return to pandemic lockdowns.

"It's horrible, the streets are very empty," said Guayaquil security guard Rodolfo Tuaz, 40 early on Wednesday. “It's a very cold environment, as if there were a new COVID.”

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