Ecuador’s government must be held accountable for deadly prison riots – or risk similar violence in the future

By Frank Pachas

ECUADORIAN authorities must be held accountable and should not evade responsibility for the 79 deaths and 19 wounded in the bloodiest prison riots the country saw in February, Amnesty International has said.

The human rights group is demanding the Ecuadorian Attorney General’s office investigate the facts thoroughly and independently to determine any individual and civil criminal responsibilities in the fallout of the fatalities.

This demand comes after Ecuadorian officials last week linked the prison riots, in which inmates were allegedly beheaded and dismembered, to organised transnational crime groups. 

The riots that took place in February were one of the bloodiest the country has seen so far, with around 800 police officers needed to respond to the prison violence.

Amnesty International South America researcher Maria Jose Veramendi told Redaction Politics: “On 23 February, authorities failed to fulfil their obligation to guarantee the rights of people under their custody.

“They must now investigate the facts and determine the corresponding responsibilities in a prompt, impartial and effective manner. If they fail to do so and to address the structural issues affecting persons deprived of liberty, the risk of similar riots will remain.”

Veramendi questioned the Ecuadorian government for not taking concrete steps to address the structural issues which affect the Andean country’s prisons, such as overcrowding. 

According to the government, Ecuador’s prisons are overcrowded by 30 per cent and the lack of resources are an ongoing threat to the safety of the 38,683 inmates across the country doing their time in prisons designed for less than 30,000.  

Veramendi urged Ecuador to implement a public policy with sufficient funding based on human rights standards such as the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners to address those pressing issues. 

She told Redaction Politics: “Ecuadorian authorities should not evade their responsibility by attributing the riots only to disputes between criminal organisations, whether national or transnational.”

The violence, whose causes and actors have yet to be legally determined, occurred in the context of an absence of public policies to address the structural problems in Ecuador’s prisons. 

Authorities initially attributed the riots, which took place in four different prisons in Guayaquil, Cuenca and Lacatunga, —the latter one being the maximum security prison in the country, to rivalries between local gangs fighting for criminal leadership within the detention centres. 

But on Monday last week, admitting the penitentiary system remained tense, former Interior Minister Patricio Pazmino said those rivalries were linked to drug trade international groups. 

Pazmino said: “We are not talking about a simple fight between criminal groups in prisons. We are talking about a confrontation between criminal groups with international contacts over illegal markets in the country.”

On the same day, Ecuador’s National Assembly called for the removal of Pazmino, the head of the police and the prison service, after new attempted riots took place in Lacatunga, which confirmed Amnesty International’s concerns.

Five prison guards were held by prisoners but fortunately were released a few hours later when security forces brought the situation under control without more fatalities.

Five days later these two incidents led the interior minister, a reserve police officer, to hand out his resignation in a letter addressed to President Lenin Moreno. 

In the letter, which was shared on his Twitter account, he also said submitting his irrevocable resignation was his own personal decision after his management had been questioned. 

He also added his resignation was due to health reasons as he was diagnosed with catching Covid-19 for a second time. 

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) also expressed its concerns as of today the Andean government lacks a clear policy to assist inmates.  

IACHR commissioner Edgar Stuardo Ralón told Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo that the rebellion happened because the implementation of public policies lacked direction. 

The commissioner joined Amnesty international’s demands and said: “The fact that it was a clash between rival prison groups does not take away the state’s obligation to create the conditions to have all the penitentiary system comply with different inter-American standards.”

Since 2015 there have been almost 20 prison riots in Ecuador’s prisons with the majority of them happening under President Lenin Moreno’s administration.

Featured Image: Pixabay

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