Ecuador ‘at war’ with drug gangs, says president as a state of emergency is declared

At least 10 people have been killed in a wave of violence which included taking 130 prison staff hostage and a brief takeover of a TV station live on air

Ecuador’s president, Daniel Noboa, said on Wednesday that his country was “at war” with drug gangs who are holding more than 130 prison staff hostage and who briefly captured a TV station live on air, in a wave of violence that has left city streets deserted.

At least 10 people have been killed, including police officers, in the attacks.

In images that went around the world, gunmen stormed a TV station during a live broadcast on Tuesday before being captured by police special forces.

Videos posted on social media showed a gruesome series of other attacks including car bombs, the murder of police officers in the street, the apparent lynching of prison guards and attempted takeovers of hospitals and a university in Guayaquil. The Ecuadorian police confirmed two officers had been killed.


“We are fighting narco-terrorism,” Noboa said in a radio interview on Wednesday. Referring to videos showing the apparent murder of prison guards, he said: “They disseminate images to frighten the public and to bring the president of the republic to his knees, and that is not going to happen.”

He added: “I sympathise with the families. We are in a state of war and we cannot give in.”

The wave of violence prompted the Ecuadorian president to issue a decree on Tuesday designating nearly two dozen gangs as terrorist groups and authorised Ecuador’s military to “neutralise” the crime factions “within the bounds of international humanitarian law”.

“They have created a wave of violence to frighten the populace,” Adm Jaime Vela, head of the joint command of the armed forces, said on Tuesday. “From this moment on, every terrorist group identified in the aforementioned decree has become a military objective.”

Noboa, who was elected in October on a promise to crack down on violent crime, declared a two-month state of emergency late on Monday, in response to jail violence – including hostage-takings of guards by prisoners – and the escape of Adolfo Macías, alias Fito, the leader of Los Choneros gang, over the weekend.

The government has said the violence is a reaction to Noboa’s plan to build two new high-security prisons for gang leaders modelled on the design used by El Salvador’s controversial president, Nayib Bukele, who has built the largest prison in the Americas to house 70,000 alleged gang members amid mounting human rights concerns about due process and the imprisonment of innocent people.

Speaking last week, Noboa said the planned prisons would be “just the same” as those in El Salvador, jokingly inviting “Bukele lovers”, referring to supporters of the Salvadorian president, to visit.

Prison transfers of gang leaders have historically led to violence, with hundreds of prisoners killed in recent years.

Ecuador’s prison service said 139 guards and other staff were being held hostage in jails amid uncorroborated videos showing apparent lynchings and killings of prison staff. Eleven prison guards had been released, it added.

Businesses and offices were closed in most Ecuadorian cities and children were sent home to study online until the end of the week.

Video footage showed gunfights between soldiers and unseen armed men in southern Ecuador, while other images on social media showed armed men on the streets and traffic at a standstill.

Authorities in Guayaquil said there were “takeover” incidents at five hospitals, but that police and soldiers had restored order. It was unclear what the incidents entailed.

The city’s roads were eerily quiet and there was scant sign of the major military deployment promised by Ecuador’s president.

Guayaquil’s normally bustling La Bahia market was a ghost town on Wednesday afternoon with only a handful of its hundreds of metal stalls open for business.

“We are paralyzed. We are utterly paralyzed. The whole city is like this,” said watch repairer Juan Ciro Granados Criollo, 70, who could only remember seeing the region so empty on one other occasion: during the Covid pandemic.

Martha Sanchez, a 38-year-old shop keeper, said she felt consumed by uncertainty. “Truth be told, I’m afraid,” she admitted, calling for the government to respond to the criminal attacks with “a firm hand”. “Everything is absolute chaos.”

On Tuesday night, Peru declared an emergency along its northern border with Ecuador. The country’s prime minister, Alberto Otárola, made the announcement, noting that the emergency declaration would deploy an unspecified number of army troops to support police forces and that the country’s defence and interior ministers would also travel to the border.

The assistant secretary for western hemisphere affairs at the US state department, Brian A Nichols, said on X that he was “extremely concerned by today’s violence & kidnappings in Ecuador. The United States stands with the people of Ecuador.”

Noboa said the country would begin to deport foreign prisoners, especially Colombians, this week to reduce prison populations and spending.

There are about 1,500 Colombians in prison in Ecuador, Noboa told the radio station, adding that prisoners from Colombia, Peru and Venezuela accounted for 90% of jailed foreigners.

Colombia’s justice minister told local radio on Tuesday he was willing to work with Ecuador, but that Colombian law dictated that repatriations must be assessed on a case-by-case basis and be based on requests from prisoners themselves.

Colombia has, like many Latin American countries, expressed its support for Ecuador’s government, and said on Wednesday it would increase military presence and controls along their nearly 600km (370-mile) shared border. - The Guardian