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What is happening in Ecuador?

By Julia Symmes Cobb

(Reuters) -Ecuador is reeling from a fresh wave of violence that has shaken the South American nation, with President Daniel Noboa launching a military crackdown on gangs after criminal groups took more than 100 prison staff hostage and armed men dramatically interrupted a live television broadcast.

The crisis highlights the challenges ahead for Noboa, who took power in November after pledging during an election campaign to curb violence as drug trafficking gangs increasingly transport cocaine through Ecuador.

WHY HAS ECUADOR’S SECURITY DETERIORATED?

Security in Ecuador has worsened since the coronavirus pandemic, which also battered the Andean nation’s economy.

The number of violent deaths rose to 8,008 in 2023, the government has said, nearly double the 2022 figure. The violence crossed into the political arena last year when an anti-corruption presidential candidate was assassinated.

The government blames the situation on the growing reach of cocaine trafficking gangs, who have destabilized swathes of South America.

Inside Ecuador’s prisons, the gangs have taken advantage of the state’s weak control to expand their power. Prison violence has become increasingly common, resulting in hundreds of deaths in incidents authorities have blamed on gang battles to control the jails.

Guayaquil, a coastal city that is Ecuador’s largest, is considered the country’s most dangerous, with its ports acting as a hub for drug smuggling.

Noboa, 36, has been touting his «Phoenix Plan» for security, which includes the establishment of a new intelligence unit, tactical weapons for security forces, new high-security prisons and reinforced security at ports and airports.

It will cost some $800 million, he said, though $200 million in new weapons for Ecuador’s army will be provided by the United States.

WHAT CAUSED THIS WEEK’S FLARE-UP OF VIOLENCE?

Police said on Sunday that Adolfo Macias, the leader of the Los Choneros criminal gang, had disappeared from the prison where he was serving a 34-year sentence. Authorities are trying to track him down.

Meanwhile, there were incidents of violence in at least six prisons beginning on Monday. As of Wednesday, more than 100 guards and other staff were still being held hostage by prisoners. In Riobamba, a provincial capital in central Ecuador, 39 inmates escaped from a prison, though some have been recaptured.

Violence spread to the streets on Tuesday, with two police officers killed in Guayas province, where Guayaquil is located.

Seven police officers were also kidnapped around the country, though three have been freed.

The violence was most dramatically displayed when an armed group burst into a television studio during a live broadcast and held journalists at gunpoint. More than a dozen people in the group were arrested.

Explosions were also confirmed in several cities on Tuesday, though no injuries were reported.

Noboa, who has vowed not to negotiate with «terrorists,» has said the violence is a reaction to his government’s plans to build a new high-security prison for jailed gang leaders.

WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT DOING TO TACKLE THE PROBLEM?

Noboa declared a 60-day state of emergency — a tool used by his predecessor Guillermo Lasso to little success — on Monday, enabling military patrols, including in prisons, and setting a national nighttime curfew.

In an updated decree published on Tuesday afternoon, Noboa said he recognized an «internal armed conflict» in Ecuador and identified several criminal gangs as terrorist groups, including Los Choneros. The decree ordered the armed forces to neutralize the groups.

Seventy people have been arrested since Monday in response to incidents like the TV station take-over, the police said on Wednesday.

Schools were shut across the country on Wednesday, with classes taking place virtually and many businesses choosing to close for the day.

Noboa’s coalition, a broad alliance of center-left, center-right and centrist groups, has a majority in the National Assembly, something Lasso lacked, but some Ecuadoreans are questioning why the president is not taking harsher measures against gangs.

He plans to hold a security-focused plebiscite later this year, which would include asking the public if the government should undo a ban on the extradition of Ecuadoreans wanted abroad and if seizure of assets from suspected criminals should be allowed.

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