Riots in the Litoral Penitentiary 

On November 13th, 2021, the Litoral Penitentiary in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, saw its latest uprising of riots that resulted in 68 prisoners dead and several more wounded. The incident was incited by a gang rivalry within the prison and quickly escalated into a riot. People in the area “reported hearing hours of sustained gunfire and explosions” during the conflict.

This is not the first instance of fatal gang violence in the country’s prison system, which has become riddled with gang members who have maintained their rivalries even behind bars. Roughly 300 inmates have been killed in similar incidents in 2021 alone, with the most deadly riots occurring just earlier in September, which saw 119 inmates killed. 

Following the September riots, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency in the nation’s prison system and began taking action to reduce gang presence and conflict in penitentiaries around the country. This was the second time a state of emergency had been declared over Ecuador’s prisons system in 2021 and the fourth time since 2019. Lasso’s administration began by deploying military personnel into the prisons, as well as by attempting to weaken and divide the gangs by extending sentences for their leaders. Gang violence in Ecuador has a long history, however, and has formed into a self-perpetuating cycle as its systemic nature has not been adequately challenged.  

Gangs in Ecuador

Los Choneros is one of Ecuador’s most prominent gangs, originating in the 1990s. This highly violent gang is heavily involved in drug trafficking, extortion, and contraband, and has managed to establish a heavy presence in the Ecuadorian prison system.  

Following Ecuador’s first declaration in 2021 of a state emergency over its prison system, there was an attempt to dissolve the stronghold presence that gangs held across penitentiaries. Then-President Lenin Moreno began by separating gang leaders and other prominent members from their organizations within the prisons. This action resulted in the creation of several “subgroups” who adopted the territories in which their respective prisons were located and operated under their mother organizations, such as Los Choneros. These subgroups and their rivalries are how gangs have maintained their control over the prisons, and it is how they smuggle weapons and contraband behind bars.

Los Tiguerones, another prominent gang in Ecuador, is the main rival gang of Los Choneros. It was these gangs that were involved in inciting the first major riot in Litoral earlier in 2021, as well as the September riots. 

The Psychology Behind Gangs

Gangs are defined by the United States Department of Justice as “organized groups […] with a collective identity surrounding criminal activity,” which may include individuals of “every gender, race, culture and socioeconomic group.” By joining a gang, individuals are more likely to be exposed to violence, substance abuse, and incarceration. 

One of the motives for young people to join gangs is the lack of fulfillment of their “basic needs.” Being in a gang can fulfill those areas of “need” that may include “physiological, safety, love, and esteem.” A 2010 national census reported that 60.1% of the Ecuadorian population “were in structural poverty conditions that did not allow them to satisfy minimum subsistence needs.” According to Maslow (1943), people will sometimes go to far lengths to meet their needs, regardless of the consequences those lengths may bring. Gang membership can offer support in meeting those physiological, as well as physical needs, such as food and housing security. 

Additionally, gangs often provide a sense of belonging, community, and collective identity for their members. In an environment where an individual may feel unsafe, gangs can provide a sense of security and protection. This is where the issue of gangs may enter into a vicious cycle; people, especially youth, who live in areas of prominent gang activity and violence feel the need to seek protection. An individual’s solution to the violence and threat that gangs pose in those communities is often to become part of one. While this may seem contradictory, this is often the most viable solution where youth are unable to control their circumstances. 

Gang Violence in Ecuador as a Systemic Issue

Gang activity and violence within and outside of prisons have been perpetuated by the systemic issues and structures built into the state. Ecuador suffers greatly from overcrowding in its prison systems. The country has roughly 40,000 inmates behind bars and has become filled to the point of being 55% overcapacity. The Litoral Penitentiary alone houses 8,500 of the country’s 40,000 inmates and is reported to be 62% over its inmate capacity.

Labeled a “chronic situation” by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 1997, the continued overcrowding in Ecuadorian prisons has meant that some inmates are forced to sleep on the floor, and suffer through “insufficient ventilation” and non-functioning facilities. Humans Right Watch has observed poor health conditions that have only been heightened by COVID-19. Other concerns include food shortages and minimal medical care for prison populations. 

Additionally, the state has failed to adequately sponsor any rehabilitation programs for the reintegration of convicts into society as a preventative measure to the vicious cycle of gang involvement. State-sponsored rehabilitation initiatives that currently exist have not been made widely and evenly available to inmates, as prisons across the country differ in the workshops, education, and rehab programs they offer. There is also a reported shortage of not only space but also the materials and resources needed in order to carry out these programs, as well as a very likely under-trained staff who are unprepared to offer such programs. 

How Has the Government Responded?

In an attempt to reshape its approach to gang violence and discourage such violence through destigmatization, Ecuador made the decision to legalize gang organizations in 2007. Surprisingly, murder rates did decrease quite significantly. This was the state’s way of allowing gangs to reorient themselves into “cultural associations” which would then be eligible to receive government grants and funding. However, corrupt politicians, specifically in Guayaquil, have made the actual implementation of this difficult, making it a solely federal matter. Certain regions were left behind and did not receive the appropriate attention that would have allowed this policy to flourish. 

Moreover, Ecuador’s judicial system has been riddled with “corruption, inefficiency, and political interference.” Ecuador employs a Code on Judicial Function that allows judges to be removed from their positions under certain conditions, which “exposes judges to political pressure and undermines judicial independence,” only exacerbating the vicious cycle of an ineffective judicial system and inefficient prison system. 

The most recent response to the crisis has also been problematic in diffusing the systemic issues at hand. Following the riot and subsequent death of dozens in September 2021, President Lasso deployed police and military force in an attempt to diffuse the violence and prevent the smuggling of weapons into the prisons. This militarization of the prisons, however, can be quite problematic. Though this was done in response to the inmates’ abilities to out-arm the wardens, spectators of the Ecuadorian system argue that this ”will only worsen the situation,” as tensions rise. 

Additionally, an intelligence unit has been created to monitor and investigate drug trafficking through sourcing information and gaining leads from those behind bars. This has the potential to worsen the situation as it implies the exchange of information and favors between inmates and police authorities, which may result in “unwittingly empowering some group and creating a culture of snitching.” 

What’s Next? 

As the issue of poverty and a lack of social welfare feeds into the issue of gang activity and membership, the problem must be tackled at the systemic level. A crucial starting point is the implementation of proper rehabilitation programs with increased government funding dedicated to proper training, necessary resources, and ample space. Starting from within the prison systems and allowing inmates the opportunity at another path in life when they are released, with new skills and/or education, is essential in breaking the cycle and preventing relapse into gang involvement.

The poor conditions and overcrowding within the prisons is also a factor to be addressed. When inmates are contained in an environment in which they are regularly exposed to violence and do not have humane living conditions, it is more likely that they will band together to gain support through gangs. 

Another prominent issue is the flawed judicial system which is susceptible to external interference. It is well worth addressing the judicial system in a way to optimize sentencing time so as to discourage overcrowding, promote the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals, and prevent having so many people awaiting trial or sentencing. 

Most importantly, with roughly 60% of Ecuadorians living in structural poverty, social conditions must be addressed to tackle the problem at its root. With improved living standards in which basic needs are better met, youth are less likely to get involved with gangs in the first place. While this is an ongoing issue with a long and complex history, instances of fatal gang violence in prisons are becoming more frequent, and state responses may not be addressing those systemic issues which are perpetuating the cycle. Only by starting at the root of the issue, developing the prison system itself and its programs, and addressing structural issues such as social well-being, can a solution truly be sustained. 

Edited by Chase Kelliher

Lara Yacoub

Lara is originally half-Syrian and half-Egyptian, but grew up in Mexico City and Calgary, AB. She moved to Vancouver in 2019 to complete a B.A. in International Relations at the University of British Columbia....