Ecuador’s president has declared a state of emergency in the prison system after deadly clashes among gang members in a coastal prison killed at least 116 people and injured 80.
Officials said at least five of the dead were found to have been beheaded in the violence at Litoral penitentiary in Guayaquil on Tuesday, in what authorities say was the worst prison bloodbath ever in the country.
President Guillermo Lasso decreed the state of emergency late on Wednesday. It gives the government powers that include deploying police and soldiers inside prisons.
Speaking at a news conference, Lasso said he could not guarantee that authorities had regained control of the prison.
He called the bloodshed “bad and sad”.
“It is regrettable that the prisons are being turned into territories for power disputes by criminal gangs,” he said, adding that he would act with “absolute firmness” to regain control of the Litoral prison and prevent the violence from spreading to other penitentiaries.
Images circulating on social media showed dozens of bodies in the prison’s pavilions nine and 10 and scenes that looked like battlefields. The fighting involved firearms, knives and bombs, officials said.
Earlier, regional police commander Fausto Buenano had said that bodies were being found in the prison’s pipelines.
Outside the prison morgue, the relatives of inmates wept, with some describing to reporters the cruelty with which their loved ones were killed, decapitated and dismembered.
“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 last February.
Officials had earlier said the violence erupted from a dispute between the “Los Lobos” and “Los Choneros” prison gangs.
Colonel Mario Pazmino, the former director of Ecuador’s military intelligence, said the bloody fighting shows that “transnational organised crime has permeated the structure” of Ecuador’s prisons, adding that Mexico’s Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels operate through local gangs.
“They want to sow fear,” he told The Associated Press news agency, urging the government to temporarily cede control of the prisons to the National Police.
“The more radical and violent the way they murder,” the more they achieve their goal of control, he added.
Ecuador’s president said that care points had been set up for relatives of the inmates with food and psychological support.
He added that a $24m programme to address the country’s prisons will be accelerated, starting with investments in infrastructure and technology in the Litoral prison.
Tuesday’s violence is just the most recent incident in what has been a bloody year in the country’s prisons.
Previously, the deadliest day occurred in February, when 79 prisoners died in simultaneous riots in three prisons in the country.
In July, the president had decreed another state of emergency in the prison system following several violent episodes that resulted in more than 100 inmates being killed.
Those deaths occurred in various prisons and not in a single facility like Tuesday’s killings. At least 22 were killed in the Litoral penitentiary.
Ecuador’s prison system has 65 facilities designed for about 30,000 inmates – but the country’s actual prison population sits at 39,000 and the system faces chronic staffing shortages.