Soldiers raid Ecuador prison as two arrested for prosecutor’s murder

The government crackdown on gangs face fierce retaliation as violence rages in the country.

Ecuador prison
Members of Ecuador's army subdue inmates at the Regional 8 prison complex during an operation in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on January 18, 2024 [Handout/Ecuadorean Armed Forces/AFP]

Ecuador’s security forces have stormed a major prison complex as part of a “war” between the government and powerful criminal gangs as police arrested the suspected killers of a prosecutor.

Hundreds of soldiers and police launched an operation on Thursday in a vast penitentiary complex in the port city of Guayaquil – the same one from which gang boss Adolfo Macias, alias “Fito”, escaped last week.

The jailbreak sparked a government crackdown and, in turn, fierce retaliation from criminal groups.

After Thursday’s raid, the army shared photos of cuffed inmates in their underwear lying face down in prison courtyards.

Similar images have been released in recent days as the government tries to wrest control of prisons back from the gangs.

Uniformed officers are “in control of the external and internal perimeter of the penitentiary complex” at Guayaquil, the army wrote on X.

Meanwhile, two suspects were arrested for their alleged role in the prosecutor’s shooting death, police commander Cesar Zapata said on social media on Thursday. A rifle, two pistols and two cars were seized as “evidence”.

Prosecutor Cesar Suarez was gunned down on Wednesday in his car on the streets of Guayaquil, which has become a dangerous hub for the export of cocaine from neighbouring countries.

The slain prosecutor had been in charge of the investigation into last week’s live-broadcast assault by gangsters on a state-owned TV studio, also in Guayaquil.

State of emergency

Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti, reporting from neighbouring Colombia, said security forces were concerned that the inmates might have been heavily armed in the Guayaquil prison they raided.

“However, there has been no confrontation with the police and soldiers who intervened in the prison,” he said from Bogota.

“The killing of the prosecutors shows that despite having been hit hard, the gangs are willing and able to inflict damage on the government through high-profile assassinations,” he said. “It also tells us that the conflict will most likely continue for a long time.”

Once considered a bastion of peace in Latin America, Ecuador has been plunged into crisis after years of expansion by transnational cartels that use its ports to ship drugs to the United States and Europe.

In response to Fito’s escape, President Daniel Noboa imposed a 60-day state of emergency and nightly curfew.

The cartels reacted swiftly, threatening to execute civilians and security forces and taking hostage dozens of police and prison officials, who have since been released.

On January 9, attackers stormed the TV station, firing guns and forcing staff to lie on the ground as a woman could be heard pleading: “Don’t shoot. Please don’t shoot.”

Police entered the studio after about 30 minutes of chaos, arresting 13 assailants, many of them teenagers.

Noboa then declared the country to be in a “state of war,” deploying thousands of soldiers and police to patrol the streets, hunt down gang members, drugs, and weapons.

In the past nine days, they have carried out more than 23,000 operations and arrested 2,174 people – 158 of whom were wanted for “terrorism”, according to the army.

Investigators targeted

The uptick in violence comes weeks after Attorney General Diana Salazar announced an investigation highlighting links between the gangs and powerful state officials from judges to a former prison chief.

Salazar launched the “Metastasis” investigation after the prison death in 2022 of powerful drug lord Leandro Norero.

Her team scoured through chats and call logs from Norero’s cellphone, finding links to high-ranking officials who handed out favours in exchange for money, gold, prostitutes, apartments and other luxuries.

More than 900 people took part in the investigation, which resulted in more than 75 raids and dozens of arrests.

Those investigating the gangs have become targets.

Suarez had probed cases involving organised crime infiltration of the judicial system and corruption scandals linked to the purchases of medical equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In June, another prosecutor, Leonardo Palacios, was shot dead in the town of Duran near Guayaquil, and in 2022, two prosecutors and a judge were shot in other parts of the country.

Anti-graft and anti-cartel presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was killed in a barrage of automatic gunfire after a campaign speech just weeks before elections last year that were won by Noboa.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies