ECUADOR – Ecuador, already grappling with rising crime rates, has been plunged into a new level of fear and uncertainty following a brazen attack on a television station by armed gang members.
The incident, which occurred on Tuesday (9 Jan), has led to widespread closures of schools and stores, an increased military presence in major cities, and a state of emergency declared by President Daniel Noboa.
The attack took place at TC Television, a public channel in Guayaquil, considered the country’s most violent city.
Hooded intruders stormed the station’s offices and studio, brandishing guns and explosives.
The assailants unleashed at least 15 minutes of threats and assaults against journalists and other employees. Miraculously, no one was killed, as police swiftly intervened, leading to the arrest of 13 people involved in the attack.
Even in a nation that witnessed the assassination of a presidential candidate last year, the daytime assault broadcast live into Ecuadorians’ homes was unprecedented, prompting an immediate response from the government.
President Daniel Noboa, who assumed office in November with a pledge to restore peace to the country, declared that Ecuador had entered an “internal armed conflict.”
“We are fighting for national peace; we are fighting against terrorist groups that are more than 20,000 people,” President Noboa stated in a radio interview on Wednesday (10 Jan).
Police reported the arrest of at least 70 people, including the 13 individuals apprehended at the TV station, for alleged terrorist acts.
The attackers interrupted TC Television’s mid-afternoon newscast, with the show’s “After the News” title as a chilling backdrop to the unfolding violence. The assailants, armed with pistols and shotguns, ordered station employees to lie down, aiming guns at them, and making explicit threats.
The attackers also kidnapped several police officers, one of whom was forced to read a statement to President Noboa at gunpoint, declaring police, civilians, and soldiers as the “spoils of war.”
Alina Manrique, the head of news for TC Television, was reportedly ordered to the floor at gunpoint. The entire episode, lasting around 15 minutes, was eventually cut off when the transmission was abruptly halted.
President Noboa wasted no time responding to the attack. He issued a decree designating 20 drug-trafficking gangs, including the assailants, as terrorist groups and authorized the military to “neutralize” them within the bounds of international humanitarian law.
The move came in the wake of a series of violent incidents, including the kidnapping of police officers, that have rocked Ecuador since the president imposed a national state of emergency on Monday (8 Jan).
The apparent escape of Llos Choneros gang leader Adolfo Macías, alias “Fito,” from prison on Sunday (7 Jan), triggered a cascade of violence. Los Choneros, known for their involvement in drug trafficking, reportedly have links with Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.
Macías, serving a 36-year sentence for drug trafficking, murder, and organized crime, was scheduled to be transferred to a maximum-security facility on the day of his escape.
The head of the Armed Forces Joint Command, Adm. Jaime Vela, characterized the recent attacks as the gangs’ reaction to the government’s measures against them. He stated, “They have unleashed a wave of violence to frighten the population.”
Political analyst Will Freeman at the Council on Foreign Relations labelled the events of 9 January 2024 as a turning point, emphasizing the need for the government to respond effectively.
“Depending on how the government responds, it will set a precedent for these kinds of incidents to continue, or it will use this as a catalyst and make some very necessary structural reforms so that the state can start to win its war against crime,” Freeman remarked.
The National Police of Ecuador reported on Wednesday (10 Jan) that they had secured the release of three officers abducted by criminal gangs earlier in the week, recaptured 17 escaped prisoners, and seized explosives, cartridges, weapons, and vehicles during raids across the country.
The situation escalated further as another gang leader, Fabricio Colón Pico of the Los Lobos group, escaped from a prison in Riobamba on Monday (8 Jan). Colón Pico, captured on Friday (5 Jan) as part of a kidnapping investigation and accused of attempting to murder a lead prosecutor, adds to the growing list of escaped gang leaders.
Ecuador, situated on South America’s Pacific coast between Peru and Colombia, the world’s largest cocaine producers, has become a key transit point for the drug in recent years. The surge in violence is largely attributed to drug gangs vying for control of ports and smuggling routes.
In response to the escalating crisis, President Noboa named 22 gangs as “terrorist” organizations, making them official military targets. The government asserted that the violence was a reaction to Noboa’s plan to build new high-security prisons for gang leaders.
Noboa announced that the design for two new facilities would be made public on Thursday (11 Jan).
Riots erupted in several prisons where 125 guards and 14 administrative staff have been taken hostage, according to the SNAI prisons agency. Eleven people were released on Tuesday (9 Jan).
The unrest has drawn condemnation from world leaders and international bodies. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described the increase in gang activity as a “direct attack on democracy and the rule of law.”
Brian Nichols, the top United States diplomat for Latin America, expressed extreme concern and stated that Washington was in close contact with President Noboa.
France and Russia advised their citizens against traveling to Ecuador.
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