Nearly 2,000 prisoners will be pardoned in Ecuador, the head of the country’s prison authorities has announced, as the South American nation seeks to reduce the overflowing crowds at its detention centers after a deadly riot this week.
Bolivar Garjan, director of the SNAI Prisons Authority, said on Friday that the government would give priority to the release of elderly and female prisoners as well as the disabled and terminally ill.
The deadliest incident of prison violence in Ecuador’s history, at least 118 inmates were killed and 79 others injured in riots on Tuesday in the southern city of Guayaquil’s Penitentiary del Litoral.
Garzon said the country’s prisons currently house about 1,000,000 inmates.
He added that Tuesday’s riots were sparked by “fights for control by organized crime groups.”
Ecuador has seen several outbreaks of violence in its prisons in recent months, as officials say gangs working with transnational criminal groups are fighting drug trafficking.
Prisoners died in February when riots broke out simultaneously in three prisons, while 2 Lit prisoners were killed in July at the Littoral Facility. In September, it was attacked by a remorseful drone, but no casualties were reported.
Ecuador has sent 3,500 police and military personnel to prisons across the country to maintain order, Interior Minister Alexandra Vela told reporters on Friday.
He added that forensic units had identified 411 people since Tuesday’s violence and had delivered the bodies of 21 of the dead to their families.
Relatives of dozens of detainees have gathered outside a Guayaquil morgue to seek information about their loved ones. Authorities say at least six people have been beheaded.
Henry Coral, a police officer, urged family members to speed up the identification of bodies by notifying authorities of tattoos, spots or other distinctive features of any detainees believed to be dead. Some bodies were mutilated or burned, making identification difficult.
Eduardo Montes, 60, was awaiting news from his 25-year-old brother Vicente Montes, who was due to be released in a month.
“They sent us a picture where you can see the head of a victim and we believe it’s my brother, but we don’t know if he’s really dead or alive,” Montes said. “I hope he is alive and they will release him.”
On Wednesday, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency at the prison, giving the government the power to deploy police and troops inside the detention center.
Dozens of police and military vehicles, as well as ambulances, entered the Littoral prison compound on Thursday, when helicopters flew over the area.
“It is unfortunate that prisons are being turned into a battleground for power struggles by criminal gangs,” Lasso said, adding that he would work “with full vigor” to regain control of liturgical prisons and prevent violence from spreading to other facilities.
Pictures spread on social media showed dozens of corpses and battlefield-like scenes between the pavilions 9 and 10 of the prison. Fighting broke out with firearms, knives and bombs, officials said.
Lady Juniga, former president of Ecuador’s National Rehabilitation Council, said “there has never been an incident like this or near in the history of the country.”
Juniga, who was also the country’s justice minister in 2011, lamented that no action had been taken to prevent another genocide after the deadly prison riots in February.
Lasso said care points were set up for relatives of the detainees, where they could receive food and psychological support.
He added that a program on the state of prisons in the country would be expedited by investing in infrastructure and technology in Litoral prisons.