Relatives wait outside the morgue for news of their relatives who were detainees in Litoral Prison after the deadly unrest broke out in prison in Guayaquil, Ecuador on Sunday, November 14, 2021. (AP Photo / Dolores Ochoa)
GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador – The signs that an attack is imminent in the largest prison in Ecuador’s coastal city of Guayaquil couldn’t be clearer.
For days there had been talk among inmates at the Litoral Penitentiary that one group would attack another. Then, early Friday morning, police arrested three men who were trying to smuggle two rifles, five small arms, three grenades, dynamite sticks and hundreds of rounds of ammunition into the prison.
Hours later, the police announced what the prisoners in Litoral already knew: The three imprisoned men belonged to a prison gang that stored weapons.
What happened hours later confirmed that many more weapons were already inside. A brutal attack was launched late on Friday and clashes between rival gangs lasted for hours into early Saturday. When the dust settled and authorities regained control, they found at least 68 inmates dead and 25 wounded in the recent massacre in Ecuador’s troubled prison system.
So far this year at least 334 detainees have died in various clashes in Guayaquil Prison, including 119 detainees in an attack in September.
The Associated Press contacted a prisoner in one of the 12 cell blocks – or pavilions – that make up the prison to learn firsthand what happened before and during the deadly confrontation and how gangs operate inside the prisons. AP confirmed the identity of the detainee, who asked not to be identified for fear of being killed. He has served five years of a 25-year prison sentence for murder, but says he is not a gang member and is trying to remain neutral.
In the days leading up to the attack, inmates heard that an attack was imminent and that the target would be Pavilion 2, the “temporary” pavilion where new inmates arrive and are held until they can be accommodated, he said.
The rumors turned out to be true.
The inmate said the shooting started at 7 p.m. on Friday and he hid under his cement bunk in a roughly eight-square-meter cell that housed 12 inmates. He asked not to identify his cell block to prevent gang members from finding out who he is.
Until 2020 the Litoral Penitentiary was controlled by the “Choneros” for years. But after the assassination of their leader Jorge Luis Zambrano last year, an internal dispute over control of the gang began. The authorities hold factions of the gang responsible for the massacres in the prison.
Prison officials speak of at least six factions: the Lobos, JR, Tiguerones, Fito, Samir and Ben10. The police did not say which group was behind the attack on Friday. They say some gangs have ties to the Mexican drug cartels Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation.
“Here you sleep with one eye open,” said the prisoner. And now, he said, there was talk of attacks on other pavilions in the prison in a few days. “They want to break you … and take control of the drug trafficking routes and micro-trafficking” or the local drug sales.
At the Litoral Penitentiary he said, “Everything is arranged with massacres and blackmail. If you don’t cooperate, you die, they decide who lives, who dies, who gets rich. “
The littoral is designed for 5,000 occupants, but currently holds more than 8,500. The arrested leaders of the most important drug gangs in Ecuador are being held there. They not only deny international drug trafficking – Ecuador is a drug transit country alongside Colombia and Peru – but also local sales.
Pablo Arosamena, the governor of Guayas state, where Guayaquil is located, recently told reporters that the profits from internal drug sales in Ecuador are very high. While a kilogram of cocaine can be sold outside Ecuador for $ 35,000, the same amount when broken up and sold to consumers in Ecuador can bring in up to $ 100,000, he said.
Authorities say they are trying to control what is going on in the prison, including installing a network of cell phone jammers to prevent inmates – and gang leaders – from communicating with the outside world.
But it doesn’t seem to work: AP spoke to the inmate in Litoral on a cell phone. What they are doing “is useless, we have a better signal here than outside,” he said.
A common question asked after a massacre is how the gangs get so many guns into jail.
The detainee said there had been agreements between the detainees and the guards and that guns would be brought into food trucks and sometimes even brought by “members of the police” themselves.
“The mafia always works by squeezing the families of” people who work in prison, he said.
The gangs have so much control of the prisons that members sometimes even leave the prison and return with guns, like the three men arrested Friday hours before the attack.
“You are emissaries of the bosses. They can go but must return because if they do not return (to the prison) they will die. The bosses control everything here, ”said the inmate
General Marco Villegas, the police’s prison control delegate, said the three inmates who tried to smuggle in the guns jumped over a wall to get out onto the street where someone with guns was waiting for them to take them back over the wall .
Authorities have declared successive emergencies in the prison system to end the killings and sent hundreds of police officers to search, but with no apparent success.
According to the Ecuadorian constitution, which has been in force since 2008, regular police officers are not allowed to stay in prisons and soldiers cannot go inside at all, even in situations of extreme violence. All that remains is the guard.
“The government is responsible for any omissions,” said lawyer Joffre Campaña, founder of Goberna & Derecho, a group that deals with legal issues related to governance.
He said the prison crisis would not be resolved through emergencies or searches.
“It’s a structural, complex problem and they only give us temporary and populist answers,” said Campaña.
Associate press writer Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador contributed to this report.