Ecuador’ s president gave orders this week to “neutralise” criminal gangs after gunmen stormed and opened fire in a TV studio, as bandits threatened random executions on a second day of terror in the country.
Gangs declared war on the government when President Daniel Noboa announced a state of emergency following the prison escape on Sunday of one of Ecuador’s most powerful narco bosses.
Noboa ordered military operations to “neutralise” criminal gangs, as the country exploded into what he called an “internal armed conflict.”
Long a peaceful haven sandwiched between top cocaine exporters Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has seen violence explode in recent years as rival gangs with links to Mexican and Colombian cartels vie for control.
In the port city of Guayaquil, men wearing balaclavas and waving weapons stormed a state-owned TV station during a live broadcast, taking several journalists and staff members hostage on Tuesday.
At least 10 people have been killed in a series of attacks blamed on gangs - eight in Guayaquil, and two “viciously murdered by armed criminals” in the nearby town of Nobol, police said.
Three other officers were wounded in Guayaquil.
After the escape of Jose Adolfo Macias – aka “Fito, leader of Ecuador’s biggest gang Los Choneros – Noboa declared a nationwide state of emergency and nightly curfew. Gangs retaliated, taking police officers hostage, setting off explosions in several cities.
They stormed a studio of state-owned TC Television in Guayaquil with guns and explosives. Hooded attackers fired gunshots during a live TC broadcast as a woman could be heard pleading: “Don’t shoot, please don’t shoot.”
The intruders forced terrified crew onto the ground and a person could be heard screaming as the studio lights went out but the broadcast continued.
Police entered the studio after about 30 minutes of chaos.
Noboa, 36, who was elected last year on a pledge to fight drug-related violence, ordered the military operations against gangs he described as “terrorist organizations and belligerent non-state actors.”
Authorities reported multiple explosions and cars set alight on Tuesday, including in the capital Quito, and said seven police officers had been kidnapped. A video circulating on social media showed three of the kidnapped officers sitting on the ground with a gun pointed at them as one was forced to read a statement addressed to Noboa.
“You declared war, you will get war,” the visibly terrified officer read.
“You declared a state of emergency. We declare police, civilians and soldiers to be the spoils of war.” The statement added that anyone found on the street after 11pm “will be executed.”
There was panic on the streets, with shops and businesses in various cities closing early and residents rushing home as face-to-face classes were suspended nationwide until Friday.
The head of Ecuador’s Joint Command of the Armed Forces, Jaime Vela, said that gangs had “committed bloody acts without precedent.”
“Despite their brutal wickedness, this attempt will fail,” he told media after a security council meeting in Quito headed by Noboa.
Brian Nichols, the top US diplomat for Latin America, said Washington was “extremely concerned” by the violence and kidnappings, and pledged to provide assistance and “remain in close contact” with Noboa’s team.
Peru put its border with Ecuador under a state of emergency.
China’s embassy and consulates in Ecuador on Wednesday said that services to the public were suspended. France and Russia both advised their citizens against travel to Ecuador.
Chile, Colombia, Brazil and Spain sent messages of support for Noboa.
A manhunt is under way for Fito, who had been serving a 34-year sentence for organised crime, drug trafficking and murder. The 44-year-old is believed to have escaped just hours before police arrived to conduct an inspection of the Guayaquil prison where he was held.
On Tuesday, officials said another narco boss, Los Lobos leader Fabricio Colon Pico, also escaped since his arrest last Friday for alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Ecuador’s attorney general.
Unrest has broken out at several penitentiaries, and the SNAI prisons authority said 125 guards and 14 administrative officers were being held by inmates in five cities.
Unverified videos circulating on social media purported to show captives armed with knives executing at least two guards.