Imprisonment is nearly “a death sentence” in Ecuador, Amnesty International has warned, a day after the latest prison riot in the South American nation left dozens of inmates dead.
In a statement on Tuesday, the human rights group’s Americas director Erika Guevara Rosas said “repeated mistakes” by the Ecuadorian authorities have led to the deaths of hundreds of people in the country’s prisons.
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“Being deprived of your liberty in Ecuador has almost become a death sentence,” she said.
“The authorities must address, once and for all, the structural causes of this problem, such as overcrowding, corruption and impunity, through a comprehensive prison policy focused on human rights. All deaths and human rights violations of persons deprived of their liberty must be thoroughly, independently and impartially investigated.”
At least 44 inmates died on Monday, the country’s public prosecutor said, as more than 200 other prisoners managed to escape after a riot broke out at the Bellavista prison in Santo Domingo de los Colorados, about 80km (50 miles) from the capital Quito.
On Tuesday, police chief of operations Geovanny Ponce said “a total of 220 citizens escaped yesterday and at this moment we have recaptured 200”. He said the government was offering up to $3,000 for information leading to the recapture of the remaining 20 fugitives.
Authorities said the riot began after a fight broke out between the rival Los Lobos and R7 gangs inside the facility.
“The majority of victims, if not almost 100 percent, were killed with knives and not guns,” Interior Minister Patricio Carrillo said. “Their mutilated bodies were left where they were.”
The prisoners were killed in their cells and common rooms, after which inmates then used guns to try to escape the facility.
“This is the unfortunate result of gang violence,” President Guillermo Lasso, who is on a state visit to Israel, wrote on Twitter, expressing his condolences to the relatives of the victims.
It was the latest bout of violence in recent months in Ecuadorian prisons, which are at about 15 percent over their capacity. The 1,200-capacity Bellavista prison houses 1,700 inmates.
Amnesty International said the violence has killed at least 390 people since December 2020.
Authorities have blamed the deadly confrontations on rival drug gangs, infiltrated or controlled by Mexican cartels, that they said are engaged in a battle for control of drug routes.
Located between Colombia and Peru, the world’s leading cocaine producers, Ecuador is a key transit point for drug shipments to the United States and Europe.
Last year, Ecuadorian authorities seized a record 210 tonnes of drugs, mostly cocaine.
In the aftermath of Monday’s riot, six gang leaders were transferred from Bellavista to two maximum-security prisons, the interior ministry said.
But Amnesty’s Guevara Rosas cautioned that “such superficial measures are insufficient to fulfill the main obligation of the authorities in this context: to protect the life and integrity of thousands of prisoners who are currently at risk.”
Distraught relatives of inmates waited for news outside the Bellavista prison on Tuesday.
“They’re not giving us any information. They say that young men escaped to save their lives,” said Leisi Zambrano, desperate for news about her brother.
“There are many mothers who still have not received any news about their loved ones. They don’t even know if they are alive,” she added.
Zambrano, 48, said she had rushed to the prison with other family members as soon as she heard about the riot. “We heard prisoners calling for help, asking that we don’t let them die,” she said. “It was a massacre inside.”