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IMPLICATIONS OF DEADLY ECUADORIAN PRISON RIOTS

Leidy Castellanos, Steven Cortez, SOUTHCOM Team

Week of Monday, August 2, 2021


Turi Prison in Cuenca, Ecuador[1]


On July 22, the Ecuadorian government reported that 22 inmates died and numerous police officers were injured during riots at Ecuador’s largest prisons.[2] This second wave of riots in 2021 comes as the prison system is plagued with mismanagement by the Ecuadorian government. The prison system is currently dealing with issues such as corruption and overcrowded facilities. These conditions have allowed criminal organizations to grow and created an untenable situation that could likely lead to further violence within the prison system. This is likely to affect the Ecuadorian government and society as these criminal organizations continue to expand outward. It is imperative that the Ecuadorian government develop robust policies that strengthen the security of prisoners as well as focus on countering increasing threats from non-state actors such as gangs, cartels, and members of organized crime groups. If urgent measures are not taken within the prison system, it is very likely that prison riots will continue to impact national and regional security.


In May 2019, the accidental poisoning of 204 prisoners uncovered deep-seated corruption by the state. At the time, high levels of overcrowding of prisoners reaching 40 percent led to unhygienic food handling and worsening conditions that resulted in severe contamination.[3] Overcrowding coupled with lack of proper staffing creates an inhospitable environment for prisoners and almost certainly affects the prison’s ability to maintain order. The 2019 incident was an early indicator of mismanagement and almost certainly a central factor that led to the current wave of prison riots. The proper use of allocated resources would likely lead to a reduction in illicit activities and overall improvement of the quality of life for prisoners. Interpreted as a precursor incident to the 2021 riots, the mass food poisoning highlighted the lack of proper management and an inability to deliver basic services to prisoners. The proper use of allocated resources would likely result in fewer instances of violence, as prisoners whose basic needs are being met will likely have fewer reasons for discontent. Neglect of the prisoners’ quality of life almost certainly directly relates to the current instability and violence plaguing the prison system, and as such it must be focused on to prevent future violence.


Ecuador has a network of 60 prisons, with some having been marred with waves of rival violence perpetrated by gangs within the prisons.[4] The onslaught of violence significantly tests the prison system given the unbalanced prisoner-to-guard ratio. This imbalance almost certainly presents a significant obstacle to establishing order as the capacity for guards to respond to these waves of violence is limited. The wave of violent killings in Ecuador’s prison system is linked to the December 2020 murder of crime boss Jorge Luis Zambrano, also known as “Rasquiña,” who led the Choneros gang in prison.[5] If more leaders of these gangs are assassinated, it is very likely that there will be more riots in Ecuadorian prisons. Unless these criminal structures are weakened, the situation will likely endure for many years, wreaking political and social havoc within the main prisons of Ecuador. In February 2021, the deadliest prison riot in Ecuador’s history resulted in the death of 75 inmates.[6] The riots were initiated by a group of four gangs: Los Pipos, Los Tiguerones, Los Chone Killers, and Los Lobos. In an attempt to tip the scale, they have allied against Los Choneros, the most powerful domestic criminal group with ties to transnational actors.[7] Los Choneros has great influence and presence within the prisons as it controls drug trafficking routes between the Port of Buenaventura, in the Colombian Pacific, and Ecuador.[8] Tensions between these gangs come at a time when Ecuador is struggling to control organized criminal groups involved in the drug trafficking business and maintain control within prisons. The fight between numerous groups outlines the heightened threat level that these groups pose to the overall stability of the prison system. These groups are funded by illicit activities that they engage in within the prison as well as through outside networks.[9]This highlights the growing prevalence of criminal groups within the prison system and also likely suggests that these groups have been enabled to grow unimpeded by the government. Given the current power dynamics within the prison system and the war between gangs, this issue is highly likely to continue to be a security threat requiring the Ecuadorian government’s attention.


The Ecuadorian prison riots could likely imply future problems for the country, such as an increase in the drug trafficking business and in the gang leadership within the country's prisons, likely leading to increased violence. Implementation of prison reforms aimed at increasing inmates’ quality of life and guaranteeing more operative and administrative control would very likely help reduce the current level of violent unrest. Corruption plays an important role within prisons since many high-ranking officials are involved in organized crime and in many cases, assist inmates.[10] These issues could very likely lead to a deterioration of citizens’ confidence in Ecuador’s penitentiary system. Victims of crime may refuse to file complaints since judicial authorities and the government have been accused of being involved in illicit activities regarding the network of prisons they oversee.


Prisons aim to rehabilitate and punish people who have committed crimes, commonly due to a lack of job opportunities, education, or decent access to a health system. In Ecuador, these rights are often violated, and the lack of opportunities very likely acts as a push factor for individuals to engage in illicit activities and enter the prison system. This leads to the overcrowding of prisons, creating the conditions for gangs to gain more power through uncontested growth. Reforms such as good personnel training, more in-depth security checks for prison guards, and changes in the administrative leaders of these prisons would likely contribute to a positive transformation and the avoidance of prison riots.


The wave of killings indicates the severity of organized crime groups, which inflict damage not only within the prison system but also have reached Ecuadorian society at large.[11] The coordination of riots across three prisons, the jails of Libertad de Guayas, Cotopaxi, and Turi, demonstrates the capacity of Los Choneros to establish communication networks across the prison system and also suggests that prisons have been mismanaged by the government. In an attempt to control the level of violence occurring in the prison system, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso appointed a former member of the military, Colonel Fausto Cobo, to head the prison system.[12] Under Lasso’s predecessor, Lenin Moreno, Los Choneros were able to gain strength due to the prison system’s neglect. Moreover, the Lasso Administration’s decision to install a new head of prisons was meant to improve security concerns but failed to prevent the most recent wave of violent riots. Cobo’s appointment likely suggests that the Lasso Administration is taking a tactical and strong-armed approach to dissolving the prison gang networks and maintaining order, however, these results are yet to be seen. Based on the most recent wave of violence, the likelihood of another riot and subsequent deaths is high.


In July 2021, the Lasso Administration issued an order to mobilize all necessary human and economic resources to re-establish order after violence erupted at the Guayas and Cotopaxi prisons.[13] Following theMay 2021 election, the current administration aims to address this growing issue, but the outcomes of its shakeup and allocation of resources to improve the state’s response remain to be seen. The creation of new committees including security experts and policymakers to maintain control over this prison crisis would likely contribute to addressing the issues of overcrowding as well as the capture of gang leaders who have influence and power within the prisons. This has the added benefit of guaranteeing social rehabilitation that could likely generate significant changes in the prison system. A thorough evaluation of the prison system by the public officials of the Social Rehabilitation System could almost certainly help develop programs that could likely improve prisoners’ quality of life and deter violence within prisons. These programs also directly align with the Constitution of Ecuador. The prison system’s thorough correction through policies that generate change would likely reduce the escalation of violence.


Improvement of the prison system begins with the Ecuadorian government establishing necessary ameliorations t0 prisoners’ quality of life. The Ecuadorian government’s employment of stronger strategies to reduce prison overcrowding and allocate resources that focus on adequate training and sufficient staffing of prisons would almost certainly contribute to this goal. In terms of security, the Lasso Administration should focus on countering the rise in criminal organizations in prisons and dissolving the transnational networks of illicit activities that revolve around the larger prison groups. In addition, human rights organizations’ pressuring of the Ecuadorian government will likely incentivize it to improve the quality of life for prisoners and ensure the implementation of policies that reduce overcrowding.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) will continue to monitor the future developments and threats in Ecuador and its implications for regional stability and develop recommendations to improve the situation. The Worldwide Analysis of Terrorism, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) Officers and the SOUTHCOM Team will continue to produce up-to-date reports and monitor developments, and any efforts to improve the security situation in the Ecuadorian prison system. Our team will continue to monitor the actions and activities carried out by the members of these gangs within the prisons, the implications at the regional level, and the response of the Ecuadorian government to this complex situation.


________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Turi prison in Cuenca, Ecuador” by Planetirony licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Ecuador says at least 22 inmates die in two prison riots, Reuters, July 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/ecuador-says-least-18-inmates-die-two-prison-riots-2021-07-22/

[3] Corruption Leaves Ecuador’s Prisoners Facing Precarious Conditions, Insight Crime, May 2019, https://insightcrime.org/news/analysis/corruption-leaves-ecuadors-prisoners-facing-precarious-conditions/

[4] Eighteen killed in Ecuador prison riots, RFI, July 2021, https://www.rfi.fr/en/eighteen-killed-in-ecuador-prison-riots

[5] Alias ‘Rasquiña’, líder de Los Choneros, asesinado en centro comercial de Manta, Primicias, December 2020, https://www.primicias.ec/noticias/lo-ultimo/victima-rasquina-centro-comercial-manta/ (translated by Google)

[6] At least 75 killed in Ecuador prison riots, La Prensa Latina, February 2021, https://www.laprensalatina.com/at-least-75-killed-in-ecuador-prison-riots/

[7] Los Choneros, Insight Crime, February 2021, https://insightcrime.org/ecuador-organized-crime-news/los-choneros/

[8] Ecuador Confronts Unprecedented Levels of Prison Violence, Insight Crime, February 2021, https://insightcrime.org/news/ecuador-confronts-unprecedented-levels-prison-violence/

[9] Ecuador Sends in Troops Amid Troubling Prison Gang Violence, Insight Crime, May 2019, https://insightcrime.org/news/analysis/ecuador-sends-troops-prison-gang-violence/

[10] Prison massacre in Ecuador uncovers corruption and more, KultureHub, March 2021, https://kulturehub.com/ecuador-prison-massacre/

[11] Dozens Killed in Prison Uprisings in Ecuador, Human Rights Watch, February 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/24/dozens-killed-prison-uprisings-ecuador

[12] Ecuador president decrees emergency in prisons after clashes, Associated Press, July 2021, https://apnews.com/article/prisons-caribbean-ecuador-aca3ee1762a7417f05327ecdcd265ea3

[13] Ecuador prison riots death toll rise to 27, Al Jazeera, July 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/24/ecuador-prison-riot-death-toll-rises-to-27

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