Relatives of Ecuador inmates clamor for news after bloody riot

Guayaquil (Ecuador) (AFP) –

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Relatives gathered Friday at a morgue in Ecuador, clamoring for news about loved ones locked up at a prison where 118 convicts were killed in a flare-up of gang violence, some beheaded.

They shared their worry in frantic tones as they circulated rumors that some of the bodies had been dismembered or burnt beyond recognition, and that police have yet to remove all the corpses from the scene of one of the bloodiest prison riots in South American history.

"I came because I saw a video, sent to me by cell phone, where I recognized his head," said Ermes Duarte, desperate for word on his son who he said had just 15 days left to serve at Guayaquil prison in the port city of the same name.

"I haven't spoken to my son since Monday," the 71-year-old told AFP.

The riot broke out Tuesday as prisoners believed to have links to rival Mexican drug gangs went to war armed with guns and grenades.

Police had retaken control by Thursday evening after a massive security operation involving some 900 officers and members of tactical units while soldiers and tanks were stationed outside the jail.

Soldiers on standby outside the prison in Guayaquil
Soldiers on standby outside the prison in Guayaquil Fernando Mendez AFP

Six inmates were beheaded in the massacre that left 86 wounded, six critically, according to Ecuador's prisons authority.

So far, 41 of the bodies have been identified, officials said, and 22 turned over to their families.

- Three sons dead -

A woman at the morgue, in search of her brother, told AFP she had seen an image of a severed head "which looked like his".

Ecuador's prisons are the scene of frequent clashes between thousands of inmates with ties to drug gangs -- mainly the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels.

Ecuador's prison system has 65 facilities designed for about 30,000 inmates but houses 39,000 -- 8,500 of them in Guayaquil
Ecuador's prison system has 65 facilities designed for about 30,000 inmates but houses 39,000 -- 8,500 of them in Guayaquil Fernando Mendez AFP

The prison system has 65 facilities designed for about 30,000 inmates but houses 39,000 -- 8,500 of them in Guayaquil.

The country has about 1,500 guards -- a shortfall of about 3,000, according to experts.

Corruption is rife, enabling prisoners to acquire all sorts of contraband, including arms and ammunition.

So far this year, riots have claimed 237 inmates' lives -- up from 103 in 2020 -- and left 166 injured.

Violence in Latin American prisons
Violence in Latin American prisons Patricio ARANA AFP

At the morgue, Daniel Villacis, 57, said he lost three sons in the latest prison clash.

Clutching a banner that read "You left without saying goodbye..." and a picture of one of his children, Villacis told AFP two of his sons' bodies were already at home, and he was waiting for the third.

Police continued searches of the prison Friday for arms and ammunition. On Thursday, they had seized three pistols, several rounds of ammunition, 25 knives and three explosive devices.

The government decreed a state of emergency after Tuesday's riot, suspending the civil rights of prisoners and allowing it to deploy the armed forces to restore and maintain order.

- 'A war' -

On February 23, simultaneous riots at four jails including Guayaquil left 79 inmates dead, several of them also beheaded.

Two weeks ago, Guayaquil's Prison Number 4 was attacked by drones, part of "a war between international cartels," prison authorities said. There were no casualties in that attack.

Ecuador
Ecuador AFP

Jaqueline Cox, 52, said she identified the body of her son Jorge Mojarras, 28, from a tattoo on his back in a picture shown to her by forensics experts at Guayaquil morgue.

He was in jail for stealing a mobile phone, she said.

Located between Colombia and Peru, the world's leading cocaine producers, Ecuador is a key transit for drug shipments to the United States and Europe.

Guayaquil is Ecuador's most populous city and its main port.