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Ecuador raises death toll from prison riots to 79; police chief warns of new riot

Police officers stand in a street outside a prison as authorities try to control another riot, in Guayaquil, Ecuador February 24, 2021. (REUTERS/Santiago Arcos)

Ecuador on Wednesday (Feb. 24) raised the death toll from riots in four jails to 79, including 18 prisoners who were found dismembered at one site, one of the bloodiest outbreaks of prison violence in the country's history.

But even as authorities said they had regained control following the initial riots, the head of Ecuador's national police wrote on Twitter on Wednesday night that a new mutiny in Guayaquil's prison was under way.

Police and troops were stationed at detention centers in the cities of Guayaquil, Cuenca and Latacunga, where gangs on Tuesday fought one another with handmade weapons in what authorities said was a coordinated outbreak of violence.

The gangs began a battle for leadership within the prison system in December when a leader of Los Choneros, considered the system's most powerful gang, was killed in a shopping center several months after being released.

Several of Tuesday's confrontations took place in maximum security areas of the Guayaquil and Cuenca prisons.

Prison authority SNAI said all those killed in the rioting were prisoners, with first reports citing 50 dead, before rising to 62 and to 79 in the latest report. A further dozen inmates and police were injured, according to official data.

"Thanks to the actions carried out between this institution and the National Police, the situation ... is under control," authorities added in a statement.

But in the Twitter message Wednesday night saying that a new mutiny in Guayaquil's prison was under way, the head of Ecuador's national police said police were preparing to enter again "with necessary rational force."

SNAI confirmed the new riot on Twitter and said its agents were coordinating with Ecuador's national police, but gave no further details.

Ecuador's prosecutor's office started an investigation into the riots, saying in a statement it had found 18 dismembered bodies in one of the prisons.

Inmates' relatives remained outside the prisons on Wednesday hoping for information about their loved ones.

In a televised address, President Lenin Moreno acknowledged the prison system was overpopulated by around 30% and lacked sufficient funding and personnel.

The riots took place after authorities dismantled cocaine processing laboratories and seized 128 tons of drugs in 2020, a record for the Andean country, Moreno said.

"What happened yesterday is not causal, it was organized from outside the prisons and internally orchestrated by those who dispute leadership and drug trafficking throughout the national territory," Moreno said. "What happened yesterday is not a coincidence, it is a consequence," he said, adding he would seek international help in the country's fight against organized crime.

Moreno declared Ecuador's prison system in a state of emergency in 2019 after a wave of incidents that killed 24.

(Source: Reuters)

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