Ecuador has descended into chaos this week after two notorious gang leaders escaped from prison, triggering widespread violence across the country. Armed men have stormed a TV station, kidnapped police officers, and set off explosives in major cities, leaving citizens terrified to leave their homes.
The crisis began on Sunday when Adolfo Macías, leader of the powerful Los Choneros gang, disappeared from a prison in Guayaquil where he was serving a 34-year sentence. Another gang boss, Fabricio Colón Pico, escaped from a different prison a day later. Their brazen prison breaks prompted simultaneous riots in up to six jails, with inmates taking guards hostage.
The unrest soon spilled onto the streets as the gangs ramped up attacks in retaliation for the government’s attempts to crack down on them.
In the most dramatic incident, masked gunmen stormed the studios of TC Televisión in Guayaquil during a live broadcast on Tuesday. They forced terrified staff to kneel at gunpoint and tried to make a presenter read a statement on air before being apprehended by soldiers.
At least eight people have died in the violence so far. Police officers have been kidnapped and forced to make video statements warning President Daniel Noboa not to interfere with the gangs. Multiple explosions have rocked cities across Ecuador.
Noboa, who took office in November 2022 on vows to get tough on crime, has declared a 60-day state of emergency. This allows curfews, military intervention to restore order in prisons, and soldiers to patrol the streets alongside police.
But some experts believe Noboa underestimated the power of prison gangs like Los Choneros and Los Lobos. These criminal networks act with impunity, controlling entire cell blocks like personal fiefdoms within Ecuador’s crumbling, overcrowded jails.
Gang violence has been worsening for years as Ecuador becomes a strategic drug transit point between Colombia and Peru, the world’s top cocaine producers. Mexican cartels have also gained influence in the country.
While most Ecuadoreans support Noboa’s hardline measures against the gangs, it remains uncertain whether he can regain control of the streets and prisons. Unless the root problems of corruption, poverty, and poor policing are addressed, lasting peace may remain elusive.