QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — A battle between gangs in a prison in Ecuador’s coastal city of Guayaquil killed at least 100 inmates and injured 52 more in what authorities are calling the worst penitentiary massacre in the country’s history. At least five dead were reported beheaded, officials said Wednesday.
President Guillermo Lasso decreed a state of emergency in Ecuador’s prison system, and authorities attributed the bloodshed at the Guayas prison to gangs linked to international drug cartels fighting for control of the lockup.
The prisons bureau said in a tweet that “as of the moment more than 100 dead and 52 injured have been confirmed” in Tuesday’s fighting that involved guns, knives and bombs.
“It is a tragedy … that fighting among bands, criminal groups seeking internal control reaches these levels,” prisons bureau director Bolívar Garzón told radio FMundo.
Ecuador’s department of communication said the president was going to hold a news conference to announce the details of the state of emergency.
“In the history of the country, there has not been an incident similar or even close to this one,” said Ledy Zúñiga, the former president of Ecuador’s National Rehabilitation Council.
Zúñiga, who was also the country’s minister of justice, said she regretted that steps had not been taken to prevent another massacre following deadly prison riots last February.
Images circulating on social media showed dozens of bodies in the Guayas prison’s Pavilions 9 and 10. The macabre images from inside the prison were matched by the wails of relatives of prisoners waiting outside along with armored vehicles, soldiers and ambulances.
Earlier in the day, the confirmed death toll had stood at 30, but regional police commander Fausto Buenaño had said that bodies found in the prison’s pipelines were still being identified.
Officials said it took five hours to regain control of the prison Tuesday. The violence involved gunfire, knives and explosions and erupted from a dispute between the “Los Lobos” and “Los Choneros” prison gangs, officials said.
Col. Mario Pazmiño, the former director of Ecuador’s military intelligence, said the bloody fighting shows that “transnational organized crime has permeated the structure” of Ecuador’s prisons, adding that Mexico’s Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels operate through local gangs.
“They want to sow fear,” he told The Associated Press on Wednesday after officials had confirmed 5 decapitations.
In July, the president decreed another state of emergency in Ecuador’s prison system following several violent episodes that resulted in more than 100 inmates being killed. Those deaths occurred in various prisons and not in a single facility like Tuesday’s massacre.
Previously, the bloodiest day occurred in February, when 79 prisoners died in simultaneous riots in three prisons in the country. In July, 22 more prisoners lost their lives in the Litoral penitentiary, while in September a penitentiary center was attacked by drones leaving no fatalities.