Ecuador prisoners take guards hostage after drug lord’s escape

A handout photo made available by the Armed Forces of Ecuador shows Marine Infantry soldiers as they carry out an operation after a riot at the Litoral Regional Prison in Guayaquil, Ecuador, 08 January 2023
Image caption,Soldiers have been deployed to the prison from which the gang leader known as Fito escaped

By Vanessa Buschschlüter

BBC News

Ecuador’s security forces are trying to re-establish order in at least six jails where riots broke out on Monday.

Inmates have reportedly taken a number of prison guards hostage and have threatened to kill them if soldiers are deployed to regain control of the penitentiaries.

Four police officers were also kidnapped after President Daniel Noboa declared a state of emergency.

The unrest was sparked by the escape of the notorious gang boss known as Fito.

Officials said Fito, whose real name is Adolfo Macías Villamar, was not in his cell on Sunday morning when police arrived to move him to a different jail within the same compound.

A search of the maximum-security wing where he was being held has so far not yielded any trace of him.

Government spokesman Roberto Izurieta said that Fito, who leads the powerful Los Choneros gang, had been tipped off that he was about to be moved from La Regional jail, where he lived in a spacious cell painted in jaunty colours and decorated with murals.

Ecuadorean soldiers arrive at the Zonal 8 prison for an inspection in Guayaquil, Ecuador, January 7, 2024.
Image caption,Officials said that the security forces had regained control of the Regional prison

He is thought to have absconded just hours before his planned transfer. Two prison guards have been detained on suspicion of helping Fito escape.

The 44-year-old leads Los Choneros, a powerful prison gang which is thought to be behind many of the deadly riots and prison fights which have erupted in Ecuador’s jails over recent years.

Even though its top boss has been operating from behind bars, Los Choneros’ power is not limited to Ecuadorean prisons. Gang members also engage in contract killings, extortion and drug dealing across the country.

The group has also forged an alliance with Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa drugs cartel, which smuggles cocaine from neighbouring Colombia through Ecuador’s port cities to the US and Europe.

Fito took over leadership of the gang after its previous boss, Jorge Luis Zambrano, was killed in 2020.

While he had originally kept a relatively low profile, he appeared to taunt the authorities in a “narcocorrido”, a ballad praising his criminal exploits, released in September.

In the video, two singers and Fito’s daughter croon about the boss’s dedication to his family and those who are loyal to him, insisting that he gets “a bad press”.

The slick recording, taken in defiance of a ban on electronic devices in jail, also shows Fito in the prison courtyard relaxing with fellow inmates and petting a fighting cockerel.

His escape is a blow to the government of President Noboa, who was sworn in in November after winning an election tarnished by the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio.

Villavicencio had reported receiving death threats from Fito just days before he was shot dead while leaving a campaign rally in the capital Quito.

Mr Noboa declared a two-month-long nationwide state of emergency on Monday as well as a nightly curfew in an attempt to curb the violence which has erupted in the aftermath of Fito’s escape.

A search is under way for three police officers who were seized while on duty in the city of Machala by men driving an unmarked car. Another officer was abducted in the capital, Quito.

There have also been reports of a number of explosions in the city of Cuenca, with pamphlets dropped near the scene demanding “and end to [prison] transfers”.

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