This week, Ecuador plunged into chaos as a powerful organized crime boss disappeared from prison, uprisings broke out in several penitentiaries, and guards were kidnapped and threatened by inmates in a series of events that soon turned into a serious crisis for the South American country.
The instability continued on Tuesday afternoon after hooded men stormed a television station in Guayaquil, the country’s most populous city, taking presenters and staff hostage and exchanging gunfire with the police while cameras were rolling. The confrontation ended after police subdued and arrested the intruders.
Explosions were also reported throughout the country, and authorities announced that another major leader of a criminal group, along with other inmates, had escaped from another prison.
Ecuador’s president, Daniel Noboa, declared the existence of an internal armed conflict on Tuesday and ordered the armed forces to “neutralize” two dozen groups, which he described as “terrorist organizations” in a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
Noboa, who has made restoring security in a country immersed in drug-fueled violence a priority, had already declared a state of emergency and deployed over 3,000 police and military officers to locate Adolfo Macías, the fugitive boss.
The 60-day decree imposes a nationwide curfew and allows the army to patrol the streets and control the prisons.
“The time when those convicted of drug trafficking, hired killings, and organized crime dictated to the government what to do is over,” Noboa said in a video announcing the measure on Monday, adding that it was necessary for security forces to take control of Ecuador’s prison system.
Macías, the leader of the Los Choneros gang, better known as “Fito,” disappeared on Sunday from an overcrowded prison in the coastal city of Guayaquil, from where he has long overseen his group’s operations.
The government had ordered the transfer of high-profile convicts, including Macías, from cells where they have been running their criminal networks to a maximum-security facility. According to experts in the prison system, that decision may have triggered Macías’ escape and the prison riots.
Noboa promised to regain control of the country’s prisons, which have become both gang headquarters and recruiting centers for organized crime groups.
Some security experts believe that up to a quarter of the country’s 36 prisons are controlled by gangs.
Last week, Noboa announced his intention to hold a referendum on security measures, including stricter penalties for crimes such as murder and arms trafficking, and expanding the role of the army.
Noboa, a center-right leader from a banana dynasty, took office in November following an election dominated by concerns over security and the economy. In recent years, violence has skyrocketed due to gang warfare for control of the lucrative drug trafficking routes transporting narcotics to the United States and Europe.
During the election campaign, these fears were amplified by the murder of another presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, who had declared that he was threatened by Los Choneros shortly before his death.
Macías is likely the most well-known of the criminal leaders running drug operations from the country’s prisons, and his group is believed to have been one of the first to establish connections with powerful Mexican cartels in Ecuador.
Macías, serving a 34-year sentence for crimes including drug trafficking, had previously escaped from prison in 2013. He is believed to have become the leader of Los Choneros in 2020 and has presided over the gang’s activities from his cell in the Guayaquil prison, part of a penitentiary complex housing around 12,000 inmates.