By Alexandra Valencia
QUITO (Reuters) -Ecuador President Daniel Noboa said on Wednesday his country was “at war” with drug gangs who are holding prison guards hostage, amid a dramatic surge in violence that saw gunmen briefly take over a TV live broadcast and explosions in multiple cities.
Noboa on Tuesday named 22 gangs as terrorist organizations, making them official military targets. The president took power in November pledging to tackle a growing security problem caused by a rise in drug-trafficking gangs transporting cocaine through Ecuador.
“We are at war and we cannot cede in the face of these terrorist groups,” Noboa told radio station Canela Radio on Wednesday. He estimated that some 20,000 crime gang members are active in Ecuador.
Streets in the capital Quito and port city of Guayaquil were quieter than usual on Wednesday, with many businesses closed or working remotely and schools shuttered.
The hostage-takings of more than 130 prison guards and staff, 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 Noboa to declare a 60-day state of emergency.
He hardened the decree on Tuesday after a series of explosions around the country and the takeover of the TC television station by balaclava-clad gunmen live on air.
Every effort is being made to rescue the prison hostages, Noboa said.
Some 329 people, mostly members of gangs like Los Choneros, Los Lobos and Los Tiguerones have been arrested since the state of emergency began, armed forces commander Jaime Vela said at a press conference on Wednesday evening.
“There is no hostage who has been murdered,” Vela added, in response to a question about harrowing videos circulating on social media which showed prison staff being subjected to extreme violence, including being shot and hanging.
Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the videos.
The government has said the latest wave of violence is a reaction to Noboa’s plan to build new high-security prisons for gang leaders. Noboa told the radio station a design for two new facilities will be made public tomorrow.
“Things are crystallizing but we must be conscious that this can’t be done overnight,” Vela said about the prisons.
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.
A journalist who was held hostage during the TC station takeover and forced at gunpoint to appear on camera told Reuters in an interview that the experience was “surreal.”
Noboa said the country will begin deporting foreign prisoners, especially Colombians, this week to reduce prison populations and spending.
There are some 1,500 Colombians in prison in Ecuador, Noboa said, and prisoners from Colombia, Peru and Venezuela account for 90% of jailed foreigners.
“We are investing more on those 1,500 people than on school breakfasts for our children. It’s not an extradition, it’s based on previous international agreements,” Noboa said.
Ecuadorean sentences would only be recognized in Colombia if prisoners arrive via formal repatriation, agreed with Colombian authorities, Colombian Justice Minister Nestor Osuna told journalists. If Colombian prisoners are simply expelled, they would only be jailed if they have charges pending at home.
“If there is an expulsion we’ll look at how many people, if they arrive at the border, really need to be detained by Colombian authorities,” Osuna said, expressing his “genuine solidarity” with the Ecuadorean people.
Colombia said on Wednesday it would increase military presence and controls along its nearly 600-kilometer (370-mile) border with Ecuador.
Noboa said the best way to safeguard the economy and foreign investment would be to improve security and ensure the rule of law.
The government dispatched security forces to ports to safeguard exports like fruit and cocoa, while the energy ministry said the oil and mining sectors were functioning normally.
The Chinese embassy and consulates were temporarily shut, said China, a major investor in Ecuador.
Residents out in the morning said it felt like a return to pandemic lockdowns.
“It’s horrible, the streets are very empty,” said Guayaquil security guard Rodolfo Tuaz, 40. “It’s a very cold environment, as if there were a new COVID.”
LAWMAKERS BACK EFFORTS
Lawmakers on Tuesday expressed their support for the armed forces and backed Noboa’s efforts. Noboa has a majority coalition in congress, after his party allied itself both with the leftist movement of former President Rafael Correa and a Christian party.
“I don’t need their approval right now for what we are doing,” Noboa said on Wednesday, referencing the decrees, “but I have asked for their support.”
“The challenge for Noboa will be to make lasting headway in the fight against crime beyond any immediate-term, military-led pacification,” consulting firm Teneo said in a note.
Noboa met with the U.S. ambassador on Tuesday afternoon and other ambassadors on Wednesday.
The U.S. has pledged aid within days, Noboa said. His $800 million security plan includes $200 million of weapons from the United States.
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan condemned the “recent criminal attacks by armed groups” on Wednesday and said Washington was “willing to take concrete steps to improve our cooperation” with Ecuador’s government.
Peruvian defense minister Jorge Chavez told reporters his country was investigating possible smuggling by members of its armed forces of explosives and grenades which may have been used by gangs in Ecuador. An audit of equipment over the last six months determined “there is a possibility” some munitions had gone missing.
Vela said he could not confirm whether weapons used in the TC station take-over were Peruvian.
A total of nine police officers have been kidnapped in recent days, the police said in a message to journalists. Three are still being held. One of the officers was taken from Quito and two others are being held in the Canar prison.
Five “terrorists” were killed in Esmeraldas province, national police commander General Cesar Zapata said during the press conference, without providing further details.
Police have said they were identifying three bodies found in a burned-out car south of Guayaquil overnight, and two police officers were killed by armed men on Tuesday in Guayas province, where Guayaquil is located.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito, additional reporting by Herbert Villarraga in Guayaquil, Marco Aquino in Lima and Julia Symmes Cobb and Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Sonali Paul)