All prison staff held hostage by inmates in Ecuador now free, officials say

Prison staff members, who had been held hostage by inmates, sit together after they were freed by Ecuador's police and armed forces at a jail, in Ambato, Ecuador in this Handout picture made available on January 13, 2024. Armed Forces of Ecuador/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

Prison staff in Ecuador who had been held by inmates sit together after being freed by police and armed forces.Armed Forces of Ecuador/Handout/ReutersCNN — 

All prison guards and administrative employees held hostage by inmates at correctional facilities across Ecuador have now been freed, the national prisons agency said Saturday night.

The prisons agency, SNAI, did not specify how many people had been freed but said they were undergoing medical evaluations and it would investigate those responsible for their capture. Earlier on Saturday it had said 133 guards and three administrative employees were still being held after at least 41 were released.

Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa welcomed the news and congratulated SNAI, the armed forces and the national police for securing their release.

The National Police of Ecuador had earlier said that people had been freed from prisons in Esmeraldas city in northwestern Ecuador as well as Tungurahua province on Saturday after mediation by the Catholic church.

The agency had also reported an armed confrontation at a prison in the southern region of El Oro between inmates and members of the armed forces and the National Police.

One prison guard was killed and another was injured in the facility, SNAI said.

The hostage taking at Ecuador’s prisons comes amid a wave of violence sweeping the country that has included explosions and kidnappings of police.

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Ecuador declares ‘internal armed conflict’ as gunmen take over live TV broadcast

In a separate incident this week, masked gunmen armed with explosives stormed the set of a live television broadcast. Television anchor Jorge Rendon described the takeover as an “extremely violent attack” and said that he knew of one person who was shot and another injured by the assailants.

The situation has struck fear among many Ecuadorians and the country is “living a real nightmare,” former President Rafael Correa said in a video shared on social media.

Ecuador, home to the Galapagos islands and a tourist-friendly dollar economy, was once known as an “island of peace,” nestled between two of the world’s largest cocaine producers, Peru and Colombia.

But instability has been growing in the Latin American country for years.

The immediate trigger of the latest incidents was the recent escape of a high-profile gang leader, Adolfo “Fito” Macías, from a prison in the city of Guayaquil.

Fito is the leader of Los Choneros, one of Ecuador’s most feared gangs – linked to maritime drug trafficking to Mexico and the United States, that also works with Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel and the Oliver Sinisterra Front in Colombia, according to authorities.

He was sentenced to 34 years in prison in 2011 for crimes including drug trafficking and murder. A state of emergency was declared following his escape.

Security forces have struggled to confront prison gangs inside overcrowded facilities, where inmates often take control of branches of the penitentiaries and run criminal networks from behind bars, according to authorities.

The search for Fito continues. More than 3,000 police officers and members of the armed forces have been deployed to find him. Authorities have not yet pinpointed the exact time and date that he escaped prison.

TOPSHOT - Former Assembly member and now presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, speaks to journalists upon his arrival at the Attorney General's Office in Quito on August 8, 2023. Fernando Villavicencio asked the Attorney General's Office to investigate former officials related to the oil sector of the governments of Rafael Correa, Lenín Moreno, and Guillermo Lasso as part of a criminal complaint that he filed on Tuesday. (Photo by Rodrigo BUENDIA / AFP) (Photo by RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP via Getty Images)

Presidential hopeful Fernando Villavicencio, who was assassinated at a political rally last year, said he had been threatened by Fito because of his campaign against gang crime and violence caused by drug trafficking.Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images

Before his assassination at a political rally in the capital Quito last August, late presidential hopeful Fernando Villavicencio revealed he had been threatened by Fito and had been warned against continuing with his political campaign against gang violence.

Villavicencio said the country had become a “narco state” and promised a crackdown on gang crime and corruption that has gripped the country in recent years.

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