Latest bridge bombing in Ecuador underscores grip of criminal gangs

Officials have framed the string of explosions as backlash to efforts to regain control of Ecuador’s embattled prisons.

Ecuador gangs
A boy watches from behind the bars of an electronics store as a soldier stands guard in Guayaquil, Ecuador [Martin Mejia/AP Photo]

Criminal gangs in Ecuador have detonated explosive devices on a bridge, authorities said, causing damage to an inter-city route as the country contends with a wave of violence.

Friday’s bridge explosion was the latest in a string of similar incidents that unfolded over a 48-hour stretch.

National police commander Luis Garcia told the Associated Press news agency that the targeted bridge connected two cities in the coastal province of El Oro.

Authorities have described the spate of explosions as a backlash to the government’s attempts to regain control of correctional facilities from suspected gangs.

As of Friday, almost 60 prison guards and police officers had been held hostage in six prisons across the country, according to the AFP news agency. Later that day, the prison authority estimated that 50 of the hostages were released.

Prison authorities announced the hostage situation on Thursday night, framing it as a response to recent government raids and prisoner transfers meant to undermine the gangs.

“The measures we have taken, especially in the prison system, have generated violent reactions from criminal organisations that seek to intimidate the state,” President Guillermo Lasso tweeted on Friday.

Some of the recent explosions — which include four car bombs and the planting of explosive devices at three other locations — hampered the authorities’ ability to reach the prisons, officials said.

That included the targeting of the bridge in Napo, where wads of dynamite attached to a gas tank exploded.

Two of the car bombs in Quito also targeted the former and current offices of the country’s corrections system. Six people were later arrested for one of the car bombs, which was detonated in a commercial area of the capital.

No injuries were reported in those blasts.

Surging gang violence

Once seen as a peaceful haven, Ecuador has seen surging gang violence in recent years, particularly within its prisons.

Authorities have attributed a series of deadly prison riots to an escalating battle over lucrative drug trafficking routes, precipitated by the 2020 killing of Jorge Zambrano, the leader of the local Los Choneros gang. They believe the killing left a power vacuum, with groups linked to powerful Mexican and Colombian cartels jockeying for control.

At least 400 inmates have died in Ecuadorean prisons since 2021. In late July, a riot in the Guayas 1 prison in the port city of Guayaquil left over 30 people dead.

Overall, Ecuador’s homicide rate has skyrocketed. The risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft estimates an increase in murders of almost 500 percent since 2016, for a total of 22 murders per 100,000 people in 2022.

Ecuador is considered a desirable territory for drug traffickers, as it is located between major cocaine-producing regions in Colombia and Peru.

Politicians in the crosshairs

The country of nearly 18 million people has also been rocked by a string of alleged political assassinations, the most prominent being the murder of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio on August 9.

Villavicencio, a 59-year-old anticorruption campaigner, was shot as he left a campaign stop in Quito, days ahead of the August 20 general elections.

Before his death, he had complained of receiving death threats, including from members of Los Choneros and its imprisoned current leader, Adolfo Macias.

Authorities have since arrested six Colombian men in connection with Villavicencio’s killing, while outgoing President Guillermo Lasso declared a nationwide state of emergency.

Two presidential candidates ultimately proceeded to the October 15 run-off election: left-wing politician Luisa Gonzalez and businessman Daniel Noboa, scion of a wealthy family in the banana industry.

Crime is expected to feature heavily in the final campaigns. Gonzalez, a protégée of embattled former President Rafael Correa, said on Friday during a campaign stop that she had accepted extra security for her protection.

“I am forced to wear a bulletproof vest and to accept the government’s offer to have security provided by the armed forces,” Gonzalez told voters in Otavalo.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies