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Car bomb explosions and hostage-taking inside prisons underscore Ecuador’s fragile security

QUITO, Ecuador – Ecuador’s fragile security situation was underscored on Thursday by a series of car bombings and the taking of more than 50 law enforcement officers hostage inside several prisons, just weeks after the country was rocked by the assassination of a presidential candidate.

Ecuador’s National Police reported no injuries as a result of the four explosions in Quito, the capital, and in a province bordering Peru, while Interior Minister Juan Zapata said none of the law enforcement officers taken hostage in six different prisons had been injured.

Authorities said the brazen actions were the response of criminal groups to the relocation of several inmates and other measures taken by the country’s prison system. The crimes occurred three weeks after the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio.

The prison system, known as the National Service for Attention to Persons Deprived of Liberty, has lost control of large prisons in recent years, which have been the scene of violent riots that have resulted in dozens of deaths. It has been necessary to transfer inmates to manage gang related disputes.

In Quito, the first bomb went off Wednesday night in an area where an office of the country’s prison system was previously located. The second explosion in the capital occurred early Thursday morning outside the agency’s current location.

Ecuadorian National Police General Pablo Ramírez, the national director of anti-drug investigations, told reporters Thursday that police found gas cylinders, fuel, fuses and blocks of dynamite among the rubble at crime scenes in Quito, where the first vehicle exploded. It was a small car and the second was a truck.

Authorities said gas tanks were used in the explosions in the communities of Casacay and Bella India in El Oro.

The fire department of the city of Cuenca, where one of the prisons where law enforcement officers are being held hostage, reported that an explosive device exploded on Thursday night. The department did not provide additional details beyond saying the explosion damaged a car.

Zapata said seven of the prison hostages are police officers and the rest are prison guards. In a video shared on social networks, which Zapata identified as authentic, a police officer who identifies himself as Lieutenant Alonso Quintana asks the authorities “not to make decisions that violate the rights of persons deprived of liberty.” He is seen surrounded by a group of police officers and prison officials and says that the inmates are holding around 30 people.

Ecuadorian authorities attribute the rise in violence in the country over the past three years to a power vacuum caused by the 2020 murder of Jorge Zambrano, alias “Rasquiña” or “JL,” leader of the local gang Los Choneros. Members carry out contract killings, run extortion operations, move and sell drugs, and run prisons.

The Choneros and similar groups linked to the Mexican and Colombian cartels are fighting over drug routes and control of territory, including inside detention centers, where at least 400 inmates have died since 2021.

Villavicencio, the presidential candidate, had a notoriously tough stance against organized crime and corruption. He was assassinated on August 9 at the end of a political rally in Quito despite having a security detail that included police and bodyguards.

He had accused Los Choneros and their current jailed leader Adolfo Macías, alias “Fito,” whom he linked to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, of threatening him and his campaign days before the murder.

Ecuador’s Secretary of Security, Wagner Bravo, told broadcaster FMundo that six prisoners who were relocated may have been involved in Villavicencio’s murder.

The mayor of Quito, Pabel Muñoz, told the Teleamazonas television station that he hopes “that justice will act quickly, honestly and forcefully.”

“We are not going to give up. May peace, tranquility and security prevail among the citizens,” said Muñoz.

The country’s National Police recorded 3,568 violent deaths in the first six months of this year, well above the 2,042 reported during the same period in 2022. That year ended with 4,600 violent deaths, the highest in the country’s history and the double the 2021 total.

The port city of Guayaquil has been the epicenter of the violence, but Esmeraldas, a Pacific coastal city, is also considered one of the most dangerous in the country. There, six government vehicles were set on fire earlier this week, according to authorities.

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