QUITO, Ecuador – On Tuesday, more than 60 inmates were killed in the worst prison riots in Ecuador's history, as rival gangs competed for control of the country's growing drug trade.
Violence broke out Tuesday morning during a series of coordinated mutinies in three major prisons across the country, police said. It was not until noon that the authorities regained control.
Videos shot by inmates and shared on social media showed decapitated corpses and mutilated arms and legs, shocking a nation unaccustomed to massacre. The horrifying images showed how far Ecuador has come into the violent spiral of organized drug crime.
"Things like this were unimaginable in our country," said Ricardo Camacho, who once headed the Ecuadorian prison system, in an interview. "This is a tragedy, a real shock."
The government said Tuesday's attacks were part of a feud between rival drug gangs.
In December, the leader of a prominent local gang called Los Choneros was murdered in a shopping center in the port city of Manta, which has become a major hub for the cocaine trade to Central America.
On Tuesday, the fight moved to prisons as members of Los Choneros retaliated for the death of their leader, said General Edmundo Moncayo, the head of the Ecuadorian prison system. Many of the victims, he said, were not tied to organized crime, but simply engaged in combat.
"Two armed groups tried to seize the criminal leadership of the detention centers," said General Moncayo.
Although Ecuador does not grow large quantities of coca leaves itself, it is flanked by the two largest producers in the world, Colombia and Peru.
Colombian cocaine traffickers and guerrillas have long used the territory of Ecuador for operations, and in recent years they have begun to divert a growing portion of exports to neighboring countries as Colombian authorities stepped up controls at ports and airports.
Ecuador's overcrowded prisons have become increasingly violent over the past three years as drug gangs came under effective control.
The violence worsened after prisons were forced to cut their budgets under a austerity program passed by Ecuador's financially struggling government, said Daniela Oña, who investigates human rights abuses in Ecuadorian prisons.
"It's a multidimensional problem," said Ms. Oña, noting that there is now "less money for psychology, sports, culture, social work – all these factors that hinder proper social rehabilitation."
In December, five inmates died in a prison brawl among members of a local drug gang, police said. In 2019, two dozen Ecuadorian prisoners died in a series of mutinies, in which two victims were burned alive.
José María León Cabrera reported from Quito, and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Caracas, Venezuela.