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Ecuador ‘in state of war’ amid cartel terror spree

With city streets largely deserted apart from a massive military deployment, Ecuador has found itself in a “state of war” as drug cartels wage a brutal campaign of kidnappings and attacks in response to a government crackdown.

Hundreds of soldiers patrolled the capital Quito, where residents were gripped by fear over a surge of violence that has also prompted alarm abroad.

The small South American country has been plunged into crisis after years of growing control by transnational cartels that use its ports to ship cocaine to the United States and Europe.

The latest outburst of violence was sparked by the discovery on Sunday of the prison escape of one of the country’s most powerful narco bosses, Jose Adolfo Macias, known by the alias “Fito.”

On Monday, President Daniel Noboa imposed a state of emergency and night time curfew, but the gangs hit back with a declaration of “war” – threatening to execute civilians and security forces.

They have also instigated numerous prison riots, set off explosions in public places and waged attacks in which at least 14 people have been killed.

Members of the Armed Forces frisk men in Quito

More than 100 prison guards and administrative staff have been taken hostage, the prisons authority said.

In the port city of Guayaquil, attackers wearing balaclavas stormed a state-owned TV station on Tuesday, briefly taking several journalists and staff members hostage and firing shots in dramatic scenes broadcast live before police arrived.

Local media reported some of the attackers were as young as 16.

This attack in particular gave rise to panic in the general population, many of whom left work and closed shops to run to the safety of home.

“Today we are not safe, anything can happen,” said Luis Chiligano, a 53-year-old security guard in Quito who explained he was opting to hide rather than confront “the criminals, who are better armed.”

“There is fear, you need to be careful, looking here and there, if you take this bus, what will happen,” a 68-year-old woman told AFP elsewhere in the capital – speaking on condition of anonymity and describing herself as terrified.

Mr Noboa said yesterday the country was now in a “state of war,” as he vowed not to yield to the gangs.

‘We cannot give in’

The 36-year-old president, in office for less than two months, has given orders to “neutralise” the criminal groups, whose membership is set to number about 20,000.

“We are in a state of war and we cannot give in to these terrorist groups,” Mr Noboa told radio Canela yesterday, pledging to “relentlessly confront” these “terrorist organisations.”

“This government is taking the necessary actions that in recent years nobody wanted to take. And that requires balls the size of ostrich eggs,” he said.

Police officers arrest one of the gunmen who burst into a studio of the state-owned TC television

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was “very much alarmed by the deteriorating situation in the country as well as its disruptive impact on the lives of Ecuadorans,” according to his spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

Brian Nichols, the top US diplomat for Latin America, said Washington was “extremely concerned,” pledging to provide assistance and “remain in close contact” with Mr Noboa’s team.

China’s embassy and consulates in Ecuador suspended services to the public were suspended, while France and Russia advised citizens against travel to the country.

Peru declared a state of emergency on its border with Ecuador, sending an additional 500 police and soldiers to secure the frontier.

Colombia’s army also announced it was bolstering border security.

Murder rate quadrupled

Geography and corruption are among the reasons for the once peaceful country turning into a hotspot of transnational organised crime.

Ecuador borders the world’s two largest cocaine producers: Colombia and Peru.

Guayaquil port, from where most of the drugs are shipped abroad, is seen as having weak controls.

This has drawn in foreign mafia from Colombia, Mexico and Europe, allied with local gangs that fight brutal wars for control of lucrative drug routes.

Read more: What do we know about the security crisis in Ecuador?

Much of the violence has been concentrated in prisons, where clashes between inmates have left more than 460 dead, many beheaded or burned alive since February 2021.

The country’s murder rate quadrupled from 2018 to 2022 and last year was the worst yet, with 7,800 murders in a population of about 17 million, and a record 220 tons of drugs seized.

Mr Noboa said he is targeting 22 criminal groups, the most powerful of which are Los Choneros, Los Lobos and Tiguerones.

The authorities say Los Chonero’s leader, Fito, had been leading the criminal enterprise from his prison cell in Guayaquil for the past 12 years until his escape.

On Tuesday, officials said another narco boss – Los Lobos leader Fabricio Colon Pico – also escaped following his arrest last Friday for alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Ecuador’s attorney general.

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