Ecuador descended into chaos this week as a powerful gang leader disappeared from jail, uprisings broke out in several prisons, and guards were kidnapped and threatened by inmates in what has quickly escalated into a major crisis for the South American country.
The unrest continued on Tuesday afternoon, when masked men stormed a television station in Guayaquil, the nation’s largest city, taking anchors and staff hostage and exchanging gunfire with the police as cameras rolled. The standoff ended after the police subdued and arrested the intruders.
Explosions were also reported around the country, and the authorities announced that a second major gang leader and other inmates had escaped from another prison.
The president, Daniel Noboa, declared an internal armed conflict on Tuesday, and ordered the armed forces to “neutralize” two dozen gangs, which he described as “terrorist organizations,” according to a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Mr. Noboa, who has prioritized restoring security to a country awash in violence fueled by a flourishing drug trade, had earlier declared a state of emergency and deployed more than 3,000 police and military officers to search for the escaped gang leader, Adolfo Macías.
The 60-day declaration imposes a nationwide overnight curfew and allows the military to patrol streets and take control of the jails.
“The time is over when drug-trafficking convicts, hit men and organized crime dictate to the government what to do,” Mr. Noboa said in a video announcing the move on Monday, adding that it was necessary for security forces to take control of Ecuador’s prison system.
Mr. Macías, the head of Los Choneros gang and better known as “Fito,” disappeared on Sunday from an overcrowded prison in the coastal city of Guayaquil, from which he has long overseen his group’s operations.
The government had ordered the transfer of high-profile convicts, including Mr. Macías, from the cells where they have been running their criminal rings to a maximum-security facility. That decision, prison experts said, may have led to the escape of Mr. Macías and the prison uprisings.
Mr. Noboa has vowed to retake control of the country’s prisons, which have become both gang headquarters and recruiting centers.
Some security experts believe that as many as one-fourth of the country’s 36 prisons are controlled by gangs.
Last week, Mr. Noboa announced that he was seeking to hold a referendum on security measures, including harsher sentences for crimes like murder and arms trafficking, and expanding the role of the military.
Mr. Noboa, the center-right scion of a banana dynasty, took office in November after an election dominated by worries about safety and the economy. Violence has spiraled in recent years as gangs battled for control of lucrative drug-trafficking routes that transport narcotics to the United States and Europe.
Those fears were amplified by the assassination on the campaign trail of another presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, who had said not long before his killing that he had been under threat from Los Choneros.
Mr. Macías is perhaps the most well known of the gang leaders running drug operations from behind bars, and his group is believed to have been one of the first in Ecuador to forge ties with powerful Mexican cartels.
Mr. Macías, who is serving a 34-year sentence for crimes that include drug trafficking, had already escaped from jail once before, in 2013. He became the leader of Los Choneros around 2020 and has presided over the gang’s activities from his cell in the Guayaquil prison, part of a compound that holds around 12,000 inmates.
After Mr. Villavicencio was assassinated last summer, Mr. Macías was briefly moved to a maximum-security wing in the same compound. But his lawyer appealed, and a judge ordered Mr. Macías to transfer back to his preferred spot in the jail in Guayaquil, which serves as the Choneros’s base.
He celebrated by releasing a music video in the style of a “narcocorrido,” a genre originating in Mexico that glorifies the violent feats of drug traffickers.
Last month, Mr. Noboa, promoting his plans to tackle the country’s prisons, said he would start with measures such as cutting off Mr. Macías’ access to power outlets and routers. “I saw on YouTube Fito’s cell had four outlets,” Mr. Noboa said. “There are more outlets than in a hotel room.”
Mr. Macías was found missing from his cell during a sweep for contraband. His disappearance came as he and other high-profile criminals were scheduled to be sent to the maximum-security prison, according to officials.
A top government official suggested this week that Mr. Macías may have learned of his imminent transfer through a government leak. “That would be very serious,” said the official, Esteban Torres, because “it would mean that there is rot at the highest levels of government.”
Securing Ecuador’s jails is vital to making sure efforts to root out corruption are effective, said Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“You need to make sure that when you actually send people to prison for money laundering or working in complicity with organized crime as public officials, that the punishment is meaningful and that they’re not just continuing to operate criminal rings from jails,” he said.
He said a state of emergency could help stabilize the prisons, since the entity tasked with running the prison system had failed to control gangs, but that it was not a long-term solution. He noted that Mr. Noboa’s predecessor had repeatedly imposed similar measures.
“Obviously they didn’t really durably improve the situation,” he said.
Jorge Núñez, an anthropologist who has studied the Ecuadorean prison system for years, said Mr. Noboa was not doing anything dramatically different when it came to the penitentiary system.
“It’s a mix of improvisation, and basically doing the same thing,” said Mr. Núñez, who said the previous government had turned the prisons over to the police, who had overlooked “the growth and excessive empowerment of prison gangs.”
The privileges extended to cartel leaders increased over time, he added.
Sweeps of prisons have revealed not only extensive caches of weapons and electronics in the country’s jails, but also pigs, roosters and a cockfighting ring.
On Monday night, as the first curfew approached, the streets of Quito, the capital, were quickly deserted. Only police cars and ambulances could be seen in a quiet reminiscent of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.
“The curfew affects us directly,” said Junior Córdova, a restaurant owner in Quito. “We had a great beginning to the year, but that’s not looking so good now, because people are starting to feel scared.”
Genevieve Glatsky contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia, and José María León Cabrera from Quito, Ecuador.