Chief of Armed Forces and head of prisons resign in Ecuador

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Amidst the prison crisis that has already left more than 320 prisoners dead this year in Ecuador, the head of the joint command of the Armed Forces, Vice Admiral Jorge Cabrera, and the director of the agency in charge of the country’s penitentiaries (SNAI), Bolívar Garzón , resigned this Monday (15).

They left their posts due to chaos in the prison system and the growth of drug gangs vying for power inside and outside prisons. Over the weekend, 68 detainees were killed in a riot, which saw clashes with weapons, explosives and machetes, in a prison in Guayaquil. The site had already been the scene of a riot that left 119 dead in September this year.

The country’s president, Guillermo Lasso, accepted the resignation of the two authorities and appointed General Orlando Fuel as the new head of the Armed Forces and as director of SNAI Marlo Brito, until then head of the Strategic Intelligence Center.

On Monday, he met in Guayaquil with commanders of the Armed Forces and Police, as well as ministers of security and heads of Congress, the National Court of Justice and the Constitutional Court to “comprehensively address the situation”, according to the secretariat of Communication.

He will make a statement at 20:00 local time (11:00 pm Brasília).

“The country is under attack by an international mafia of drug cartels,” presidential spokesman Carlos Jijon told Teleamazonas channel. He also shared the thesis of a political plot to destabilize the Lasso government, investigated after information emerged from the Pandora Papers investigation.

“The real goal [do massacre] it was to commit an act of terrorism that would shock the nation,” Jijon said, adding that the crisis is not reduced to “a confrontation between gangs or prison gangs”, but rather to “a very serious situation that has political ramifications.”

Lasso is investigated for alleged tax fraud. According to the investigation, he controlled 14 offshore companies –companies open in other countries–, most of them headquartered in Panama.

In addition to the Attorney General’s Office, the National Assembly is also investigating the case. Lasso was even summoned by the House twice for clarification, but he did not attend the sessions, claiming that the documents provided by his advisors are already sufficient to support the defense.

The Ecuadorian also came to threaten the adoption of the mechanism known as “cross death”, through which the National Assembly would be dissolved, and Lasso would govern by decree until the call of new general elections – including for the presidency.

In the prison crisis, the riots have caused more than 320 prisoner deaths since the beginning of the year. In February, 79 inmates died in a wave of violence in simultaneous riots in four prisons. Months later, in July, other rebellions left another 22 dead.

In September, a bloody rebellion broke out, with clashes between members of different cartels in the struggle for control of the prison, according to the local Public Ministry. The detainees also reacted to the government’s initiative to transfer the heads of criminal organizations to other prisons in the central region of the country, the agency said.

The riot put prisoners linked to the Choneros gang, supported by the Mexican Sinaloa cartel, in confrontation with groups from other gangs such as the Tiguerones, the Lobos and the Lagartos, supported by the CJNGC (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación), also from Mexico.

These international groups have associated themselves with local factions in search of privileged routes to export drugs to other countries. Neighbor of the largest cocaine producer in the world, Colombia, Ecuador has become a strategic port for the shipment of the drug.

Criminal organizations fight for the control of prisons because they get paid amounts from prisoners, for example, for security. In addition to factional disputes, Ecuadorian prisons, with capacity for 30,000 people, face 30% overcrowding when they are occupied by 39,000 inmates.

The day after the September massacre, the Lasso government declared a state of emergency only for the penitentiary system, which allowed for the mobilization of 3,600 military and police officers in the country’s 65 prisons.

Since then, 11 more inmates have been found dead in Guayaquil prison. Seven of them were discovered hanging in the same pavilion as the riot, as reported by SNAI in late October. The other four bodies were found about a week later, and the agency treats these cases as alleged suicides.

Ecuador is still facing an escalation of crime due to drug trafficking, with nearly 1,900 deaths this year, with Guayaquil being the city most affected by the violence. This situation led Lasso to declare a state of emergency across the country for 60 days in mid-October, ordering the military to take to the streets to patrol and search.

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