More than 130 prison staff held hostage in Ecuador as armed forces target crime gangs

President Daniel Noboa hardens decree against drug gangs following takeover of a TV station by gunmen

More than 130 prison guards and other staff are being held hostage by inmates in at least five prisons around Ecuador, which is reeling from an escalation of violence in recent days.

President Daniel Noboa, who took office in November promising to tackle a growing security problem caused by drug trafficking gangs increasingly transporting cocaine through Ecuador, on Tuesday named 22 gangs as terrorist organisations, making them official military targets.

The hostage-takings, which began in the early hours of Monday, and the apparent escape of Los Choneros gang leader Adolfo Macias from prison over the weekend, spurred Mr Noboa to declare a 60-day state of emergency.

He hardened the decree on Tuesday after a series of explosions around the country and a dramatic takeover of a TV station by gunmen live on air.


The government has said the violence is a reaction to Mr Noboa’s plan to build a new high-security prison for gang leaders.

Authorities have said little about the prison hostages, though the SNAI prisons agency has said guards account for 125 of the hostages, while 14 are administrative staff. Eleven people were freed on Tuesday, it said.

“The national police and the armed forces are working to safeguard the integrity of the employees of the prison security service who are being held,” SNAI said in a message to journalists on Wednesday. “We are awaiting official information about the situation.”

Videos circulating on social media showed prison staff being subjected to extreme violence, including being shot and hanging. Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the videos.

Four police officers, who authorities say were kidnapped by criminals between Monday and Tuesday, are also being held. Three other officers were freed late on Tuesday.

There have been 70 arrests since Monday in response to incidents including the TV station takeover, the police said on Wednesday.

Violence was ongoing in Guayaquil, the country’s largest city, the police said, adding that they were identifying three bodies found in a burned-out car south of the city overnight.

Two police officers were killed by armed men on Tuesday in Guayas province, where Guayaquil is located. The police provided no further details.

Streets in Quito and Guayaquil were quiet on Wednesday morning, with many businesses closed.

The Chinese embassy and consulates will be temporarily closed, said China, a big investor in Ecuador.

Schools were shut nationally, with classes taking place virtually. Residents said it felt like a return to pandemic lockdowns.

“It’s horrible, the streets are very empty,” said Guayaquil security guard Rodolfo Tuaz. “It’s a very cold environment, as if there were a new Covid.” – Reuters