With city streets largely deserted apart from a massive military deployment, Ecuador found itself in a “state of war” as drug cartels waged a brutal campaign of kidnappings and attacks in response to a government crackdown.
Hundreds of soldiers patrolled the capital, Quito, where residents were gripped by fear over a surge in violence that has also prompted alarm abroad.
The small South American country has been plunged into crisis after years of increasing control by transnational cartels that use its ports to ship cocaine to the United States and Europe.
The latest outburst of violence was sparked by the discovery on Sunday of the prison escape of one of the country’s most powerful narco bosses, Jose Adolfo Macias, known by the alias “Fito”.
On Monday, President Daniel Noboa imposed a state of emergency and nighttime curfew, but the gangs hit back with a declaration of “war” – threatening to execute civilians and security forces.
They also instigated numerous prison riots, set off explosions in public places and waged attacks in which at least 14 people have been killed.
More than 100 prison guards and administrative staff have been taken hostage, the prisons authority said.
In the port city of Guayaquil, attackers wearing balaclavas stormed a state-owned TV station on Tuesday, briefly taking several journalists and staff members hostage and firing shots in dramatic scenes broadcast live before police arrived.
Local media reported some of the attackers were as young as 16.
This attack, in particular, spread panic among the general population, many of whom left work and closed shops to return to the safety of their homes.
“Today we are not safe, anything can happen,” said Luis Chiligano, a 53-year-old security guard in Quito who explained he was opting to hide rather than confront “the criminals, who are better armed”.
Noboa said on Wednesday that the country was now in a “state of war,” as he promised not to yield to the gangs.