QUITO, Ecuador — A prolonged gun battle between rival gangs inside Ecuador's largest prison early Saturday left at least 68 inmates dead in the latest violence to hit the Litoral Penitentiary, which recently saw the country's worst prison bloodbath.
The fighting lasted for almost eight hours in the lockup in the coastal city of Guayaquil and authorities attributed the fighting to prison gangs linked to international drug cartels. Videos circulating on social media showed bodies, some burned, lying on the ground inside the prison.
Inmates "tried to dynamite a wall to get into pavilion 2 to carry out a massacre. They also burned mattresses to try to to drown (their rivals) in smoke," said Gov. Pablo Arosemena of Guayas province where Guayaquil is located.
"We are fighting against drug trafficking," Arosemena said. "It is very hard."
Police commander Gen. Tanya Varela said authorities using drones saw that inmates in three pavilions were armed with guns and explosives and were trying to enter pavilion 2, which was without its leader who had been released earlier this week.
She said police officers entered to try to protect the pavilion and get the inmates in the other areas to return to their cells. "These events are due to the dispute among criminal gangs over territory; there are now pavilions without leaders," she said.
The Attorney General's Office, on its Twitter account, raised the death toll to 68 and said 25 other inmates were injured.
The prison violence comes amid a national state of emergency decreed by President Guillermo Lasso in October that empowers security forces to fight drug trafficking and other crimes.
On Saturday, Lasso tweeted that "the first right that we should guarantee should be the right to life and liberty, which isn't possible if security forces can't act to protect." He was referring the Constitutional Court's recent refusal to allow the military into prisons despite the state of emergency. Soldiers are currently outside the Litoral.
Ecuador's penitentiaries are seeing a wave of brutal violence.
In late September, a battle among gang members in Litoral prison killed at least 118 people in what authorities described as the South American country's worst ever prison massacre. Officials said at least five of the dead were beheaded. In February, 79 inmates were killed in simultaneous riots in various prisons. So far this year, more than 300 prisoners have died in clashes in penitentiaries across the country.
Besides overcrowding, authorities in Ecuador say a major problem is the access inmates have to guns, sometimes high-caliber, and ammunition. They say they enter prisons through delivery vehicles, drone deliveries and officials this week prevented high-caliber weapons from entering a prison over a wall.
Outside the Litoral prison on Saturday, relatives of inmates gathered for news of their loved ones.
"Enough of this. When will they stop the killing? This is a prison not a slaughterhouse, they are human beings," said Francisca Chancay, 55, whose brother has been in the prison for eight months.
Some were calling for Ecuador's security forces to take control of the prisons.
"What is (President) Lasso waiting for? That there are more deaths?″ said Maritza Vera, 62, whose son is an inmate. "Have mercy, where are the human rights. We thought this was going to change, but it's worse."
Ecuador has about 40,000 inmates in its penitentiary system, which has a capacity to hold about 30,000. Of this total, 15,00 inmates have not been sentenced.
Arosemena said authorities in Ecuador will deal with the prison overcrowding by granting pardons, relocating inmates and transferring some foreign inmates back to their homelands.
"There will be more than 1,000 pardons, but this is part of a process," he said.
The Guayas governor also said Ecuador will receive international aid from countries like Colombia, the United States, Israel and Spain to deal with the crisis in its prisons. The aid will be in resources and logistics.
"For example, installing a freight scanner in the Guayaquil Penitentiary to avoid the entry of arms costs $4 million," said Arosemena.
Vera said the situation is making the families of inmates desperate.
"I feel sad and in anguish because there is too much death," Vera said.
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