Ecuador president declares ‘war’ with criminal gangs amid soaring violence

City streets deserted after gangs take prison staff hostage, set off explosions and briefly seize a TV station live on air.

Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa says his country is “at war” after drug gangs took more than 130 prison guards and other staff hostage and briefly captured a TV station during a live broadcast.

“We are at war, and we cannot cede in the face of these terrorist groups,” Noboa told radio station Canela Radio on Wednesday.

The increase in violence began after Noboa announced a state of emergency following the prison escape of Ecuador’s most powerful narco boss, the Los Choneros gang leader Adolfo Macias, over the weekend.

On Tuesday, Noboa gave orders to “neutralise” criminal gangs after gunmen stormed and opened fire on a TV studio and threatened executions of civilians and security forces.

Noboa on Tuesday named 22 gangs as “terrorist” organisations, making them official military targets.

Soldiers patrol the perimeter of Inca prison during a state of emergency in Quito, Ecuador
Soldiers patrol the perimeter of Inca Prison in Quito, Ecuador, during a state of emergency [Dolores Ochoa/AP Photo]

The government said the violence is a reaction to Noboa’s plan to build new high-security prisons for gang leaders. Noboa said the design for two new facilities would be made public on Thursday.

“We are making every effort to recover all the hostages,” Noboa said, adding that the armed forces have taken over the rescue efforts.

“We are doing everything possible and the impossible to get them back safe and sound.”

Riots have erupted in several prisons where 125 guards and 14 administrative staff have been taken hostage, the SNAI prisons agency said.

Eleven people were released on Tuesday, it said.

TV station takeover

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 on live TV.

The attackers also kidnapped several police officers, one of whom was forced to read a statement to Noboa at gunpoint.

“You declared a state of emergency. We declare police, civilians and soldiers to be the spoils of war,” a terrified officer read.

The statement added that anyone found on the streets after 11pm would be “executed”.

Ecuadorian police said on Wednesday that there have been 70 arrests made since Monday in response to the violence, including the TV station takeover.

World leaders and international bodies have condemned the unrest in the South American country.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described the increase of gang activity as a “direct attack on democracy and the rule of law”.

Brian Nichols, the top United States diplomat for Latin America, said Washington was “extremely concerned” by the events and was in “close contact” with Noboa.

France and Russia advised their citizens against travel to Ecuador.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies