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As a result of a string of gang-linked riots, more than 300 people were killed inside Ecuadorian prisons in 2021. The deadliest one on record took place in September when 119 people – all inmates – died at Penitenciaria del Litoral in Guayaquil.
Violence is a common denominator in prisons, especially in Latin America, where overcrowding remains a ruling factor. According to the University of London Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR), the region has one of the highest prison occupancy levels. At an average of 163%, for every available unit, there are 1.6 inmates. In this situation, it is not uncommon for guards to patrol the exterior of facilities, while inmates are in charge of everyday life.
Overcrowding in Latin American prisons is, for the most part, a consequence of mass incarceration policies. Governments across the region struggle with citizens’ demands regarding insecurity in the streets; prioritizing arrests over prosecutions is a quick fix to this issue. This results in prisons harboring not only convicted criminals, but people awaiting trial – a process that, it is worth emphasizing, can take years. As a result of overcrowding, living conditions become unbearable, with poor quality food, lack of clear water, and overall unsanitary surroundings as common denominators. Prison security also deteriorates for the lack of funding, leaving officials outnumbered by prisoners. It is inevitable to think that in such situations, revolts become more plausible.
“Ten countries in Latin America are operating prison systems at more than 200% capacity“N. Pyper (2015), “Corrupt, violent and overcrowded: inside Latin America’s prisons“
In this context, gang rivalry plays an important role. Historically, narcos-led gangs thrive in prisons – such as the gangs of Pablo Escobar or El Chapo Guzmán. However, nowadays, they are not only operating on a national level but at an international one as well – a trend that has been increasing over the last decade.
As stated above, poor conditions play a significant role in the riots. However, there are other reasons why revolts took place in Ecuador and not in other countries in the region. Firstly, its shared borders with Colombia (the world’s largest cocaine producer). Colombian policy against drug trafficking has been one of zero tolerance after the renowned “war on drugs” (a policy implemented, and led by, the United States with the aim of reducing drug trafficking globally and, therefore, in the U.S; overseas usually involves military aid) that, among other things, led to the persecution and assassination of Pablo Escobar and the consequent dissolution of the Medellin Cartel. Therefore, Ecuador ends up being a nexus between international cartels and Colombian coca plantations. Secondly, as mentioned before, because of its geographic position (located in the center of the continent), Ecuador can be considered a gateway to smuggle drugs from North to South America – and vice versa.
This scenario led Ecuador to a new wave of violence in the streets as well as in the prisons. According to Mario Pazmiño, former Chief of the Ecuadorian Army’s intelligence unit, “one trend over the last ten years is the increased presence of Mexican cartels in Ecuador, who hire and arm with local gangs to protect their drug corridors”. Similar to what takes place in Mexico, competing cartels are waging an all-out war against the state and each other.
THE STATE’S RESPONSE
Right after the riots, President Lasso decreed a national State of Emergency, imposing a curfew and allowing military forces to patrol the streets. The same military forces were later ordered to assist with prison security – which is still in place today. In addition, the head of the country’s prison authority announced that as many as 2,000 prisoners would be pardoned in an attempt to reduce overcrowding in its detention centers.
President Lasso seems to be looking for international assistance in security matters. In May 2022 he traveled to Israel and along with President Herzog signed a memorandum to expand bilateral cooperation in security, innovation, and trade. On May 14th, a statement was issued by the Commission for Penitentiary Dialogue and Pacification in which organized crime groups in Ecuador expressed their willingness to initiate a pacification process in the prisons. The statement included signings from groups such as Los Lobos, Latin Kings, Los Tiguerones and Chonekillers. The Commission also stated that the national government was working on accelerating the professionalization of penitentiary security and surveillance corps.
A month later, it was announced that the national prison service would incorporate a hundred officials to reduce overcrowding. Psychologists, lawyers, and social workers are included in these numbers, which showcase a renewed interest to tackle the ongoing situation regarding prisons with an interdisciplinary approach.
As stated, the Ecuadorian administration is taking action and working toward reverting the situation. Nonetheless, it seems that there is no intention to develop a long-term policy to reform the prison system. In this regard, privatization of prisons around the country should be considered as a way to eradicate corruption practices. It is clear that it will take time to root out decades of bad practices.
Unfortunately, the events that took place in Ecuador do not seem like they will come to an end in the near future, but they can serve as a lesson. Especially in Latin America, governments should not be surprised by the state of violence related to the prison system, where regional insecurity mostly comes from this type of criminal network and the living conditions of inmates are way below average.
- Could more riots like these take place throughout Latin America in the near future?
- Is the privatization of the prison system a viable option for countries in the region?
- Why are bad living conditions of inmates not discussed as a violation of human rights?