QUITO/GUAYAQUIL - Gangs operating inside Ecuador's prisons are taking advantage of state abandonment to expand their power, extorting inmates for access to services and threatening their lives with violence, prisoners' families and human rights groups say.
The prison system in the South American country has faced structural problems for decades, but jail violence has soared since late 2020, killing at least 400 people in frequent confrontations, which have drawn the concern of the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The ongoing series of riots and other incidents were initially sparked by the murder of alleged gang leader Rasquina, prison authorities say, igniting a power struggle within the Los Choneros gang, considered one of the most powerful in the prison system.
Ecuador's prison population has tripled in the past 13 years, according to the United Nations.
Conservative President Guillermo Lasso has released some people early to alleviate overcrowding, which reached as high as 36% above capacity in recent years.
Lasso has also promised to train more guards, but his government faltered in an attempt to negotiate with prison gangs and some officials have been accused of corruption.
Prisons agency SNAI is working to install modern monitoring systems and improve conditions, an agency memo seen by Reuters showed.
But government efforts fall short for human rights groups and prisoners' families.
Fabian Maldonado, a taxi driver, fears for the life of his 30-year-old son, who is being held in Ecuador's most dangerous jail - Guayaquil's Penitenciaria - on an attempted murder charge.
His son has been obliged to join one of the gangs operating inside, said Maldonado, who sends up to $80 a week - in a country where the minimum wage is $425 a month - so his son can access a mattress and hygiene products.
"This government doesn't care about the lives of prisoners," said Maldonado, 52. "Any prisoner who goes in joins a gang automatically, they enter the cell block and they have to be with a gang or they could even be killed."
Penitenciaria was the site of one of the worst incidents of prison violence in Ecuador's history in September 2021, when at least 122 people were killed.
Some 10 gangs operate in Ecuador's 36 detention centers, according to the SNAI, and count some 11,000 of the country's 33,500 prisoners among their membership.
'SO MUCH MISERY'
The government is working on structural changes, the director of its Strategic Intelligence Center Fausto Cobo told the national assembly's security committee this month.
Overcrowding is down by 20 percentage points, to 10.8%, the government has said, and new guards are in training.
But an attempt to negotiate a gang ceasefire failed. At least 76 people were killed while talks were taking place.
Lasso's press office, the interior ministry, the government ministry and the human rights secretary directed inquiries from Reuters to the SNAI, which did not respond.
This month Lasso, who took office in May 2021, named his fifth SNAI director.
"The state has not done much," said analyst Mario Pazmino, an ex-director of army intelligence. "(Prisons) are human warehouses, where there are no rights, no type of guarantees."
There is a history of gang ceasefires in Ecuador - some street groups from Guayaquil signed a 2009 non-violence agreement and the Latin Kings inked a deal to "legalize", abandoning crime in exchange for job training and other benefits.
Security forces have conducted 5,000 operations within jails so far this year, seizing more than 100 firearms, thousands of munitions and 13 explosives, as well as thousands of dollars in cash.
Extortions can lead to the murder of prisoners whose families cannot send funds.
"The prison system is maintained through the pockets of poor families who have to sell their few possessions to conserve the life of their imprisoned relative," Billy Navarrete of the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights NGO said.
"So much misery, so much killing, so much corruption, we want it all to end," said Lina Lopez, who sends up to $30 a month so her son, also held in Penitenciaria, can access a mattress and a shower.
"No one does anything to end so much pain," said the 56-year-old housewife.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito and Yury Garcia in Guayaquil; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Aurora Ellis)