Ecuador to release up to 2,000 prisoners to reduce overcrowding in detention centres

Ecuador will pardon as many as 2,000 prisoners, the head of the country’s prison authority has announced, as the South American nation seeks to reduce overcrowding in its detention centres after a deadly riot this week.

Bolivar Garzon, director of the SNAI prison authority, said on Friday that the government would prioritise elderly and female prisoners, as well as those with disabilities and terminal illnesses, for release.

At least 118 inmates were killed and another 79 injured in the riot on Tuesday at the Penitenciaria del Litoral in the southern city of Guayaquil, the deadliest instance of prison violence in Ecuador’s history.

The country’s prisons are currently home to some 39,000 inmates, said Garzon.

He also said Tuesday’s riot was sparked by “a battle for control by organised crime groups”.

Ecuador has seen several outbreaks of violence in its prisons in recent months, as officials say gangs working with transnational criminal groups are battling over drug trafficking routes.

Seventy-nine prisoners died in February when simultaneous riots broke out in three prisons, while in July, 27 prisoners were killed at the Litoral facility. In September, a penitentiary was attacked by drones, but no fatalities were reported.

Ecuador has sent 3,600 police and military reinforcements to prisons across the country to maintain order, Interior Minister Alexandra Vela told reporters on Friday.

She added that forensic units had identified 41 of the victims from Tuesday’s bout of violence, and had delivered the bodies of 21 of the victims to their families.

Dozens of inmates’ relatives have gathered outside a Guayaquil morgue seeking information about their loved ones. Authorities said at least six victims were decapitated.

Henry Coral, a police official, asked family members to help speed up the identification of bodies by telling authorities about any tattoos, scars or other distinguishing features of prisoners believed to have been killed. Some bodies were mutilated or burned, making identification harder.