As many as 2,000 prisoners will be pardoned in Ecuador, the head of the country’s prison authority has announced, as the South American nation seeks to reduce overcrowding in its detention centres after a deadly riot this week.
Bolivar Garzon, director of the SNAI prison authority, said on Friday that the government would prioritise elderly and female prisoners, as well as those with disabilities and terminal illnesses, for release.
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At least 118 inmates were killed and another 79 injured in the riot on Tuesday at the Penitenciaria del Litoral in the southern city of Guayaquil, the deadliest instance of prison violence in Ecuador’s history.
The country’s prisons are currently home to some 39,000 inmates, said Garzon.
He also said Tuesday’s riot was sparked by “a battle for control by organised crime groups”.
Ecuador has seen several outbreaks of violence in its prisons in recent months, as officials say gangs working with transnational criminal groups are battling over drug trafficking routes.
Seventy-nine prisoners died in February when simultaneous riots broke out in three prisons, while in July, 27 prisoners were killed at the Litoral facility. In September, a penitentiary was attacked by drones, but no fatalities were reported.
Ecuador has sent 3,600 police and military reinforcements to prisons across the country to maintain order, Interior Minister Alexandra Vela told reporters on Friday.
She added that forensic units had identified 41 of the victims from Tuesday’s bout of violence, and had delivered the bodies of 21 of the victims to their families.
Dozens of inmates’ relatives have gathered outside a Guayaquil morgue seeking information about their loved ones. Authorities said at least six victims were decapitated.
Henry Coral, a police official, asked family members to help speed up the identification of bodies by telling authorities about any tattoos, scars or other distinguishing features of prisoners believed to have been killed. Some bodies were mutilated or burned, making identification harder.
Eduardo Montes, 60, was awaiting news of his 25-year-old brother Vicente Montes, who is due to be released in one month.
“They sent us a photo where you can see the head of one victim, and we believe it is my brother, but we do not know if he is really dead or if he is alive,” Montes said. “I have hope that he is alive and that they release him.”
On Wednesday, Ecuador’s president Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency in the prison system, which gave the government powers that include deploying police and soldiers inside detention centres.
Dozens of police and military vehicles, as well as ambulances, entered the Litoral prison compound on Thursday, while helicopters flew over the area.
“It is regrettable that the prisons are being turned into territories for power disputes by criminal gangs,” Lasso said, adding that he would act with “absolute firmness” to regain control of the Litoral prison and prevent the violence from spreading to other facilities.
Images circulating on social media showed dozens of bodies in the prison’s Pavilions 9 and 10 and scenes that looked like battlefields. The fighting was with firearms, knives and bombs, officials said.
“In the history of the country, there has not been an incident similar or close to this one,” said Ledy Zuniga, the former president of Ecuador’s National Rehabilitation Council.
Zuniga, who was also the country’s minister of justice in 2016, said she regretted that steps had not been taken to prevent another massacre following deadly prison riots in February.
Lasso said that care points had been set up for relatives of the inmates, where they could receive food and psychological support.
He added that a programme to address the state of the country’s prisons would be accelerated, starting with investments in infrastructure and technology in the Litoral prison.