February 25, 2024


Quito
CNN
 — 

Ecuador’s President Daniel Noboa has declared an “internal armed conflict” in the country, ordering security forces to “neutralize” several criminal groups accused of spreading extreme violence in Ecuador.

The decree came shortly after hooded and armed men interrupted a live television broadcast – one of several violent incidents playing out across the country on Tuesday. Local media outlets also reported armed individuals at a hospital and a university in the city of Guayaquil.

Ecuadorians were stunned as they watched the takeover of the Guayaquil-based network’s live broadcast. The assailants were seen forcing the staff of TC Television onto the floor of the studio as shots and yelling were heard in the background, social media video showed of the incident at the state-owned network.

Ecuador’s police later said they had arrested all the armed men, members of the media outlet had been evacuated, and all staff and hostages of the network were alive.

At least four firearms, two grenades, and “explosive material” were recovered and 13 people apprehended, César Zapata, General Commander of the National Police said. He added that the perpetrators would be brought to justice for their “acts of terrorism.”

TC Television anchor Jorge Rendon described the takeover of the broadcast as an “extremely violent attack.”

“They wanted to enter the studio so that we could say what they wanted, I guess their message,” Rendon recalled in a video on TC Television’s official X account. Rendon said he knew of one person being shot and another injured by the assailants. Police have not confirmed those injuries.

The situation has struck fear among many Ecuadorians. One woman, who lives outside Guayaquil and was told to go home early by her boss, described the chaotic traffic on her drive home. “Cars were going the wrong way; everyone was just trying to get through,” she said.

“The scariest part was seeing the desperation, seeing businesses shutting down, desperate people, including children and women, running frantically in avenues only meant for cars.”

The country has been rocked by explosions, police kidnappings, and prison disturbances since Noboa on Monday declared a nationwide state of emergency after high-profile gang leader Adolfo “Fito” Macias escaped from a prison in Guayaquil.

Spiraling violence

The state of emergency will last for 60 days and mobilize the police and the armed forces to control disturbances to public order. It includes a curfew, from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., to restrict meetings and actions that may threaten public order. Noboa’s beleaguered predecessor, former President Guillermo Lasso, instated several states of emergency with limited success.

Since it was announced, at least seven police agents have been kidnapped in three different cities, according to a post on X by the National Police.

The spiraling violence is the most extreme test yet for the new president, who won last year’s run-off vote with promises to tackle soaring crime.

The country’s worsening security situation is largely driven by rival criminal organizations, which have been meting out brutal and often public shows of violence in the country’s streets and prisons in their battle to control drug trafficking routes.

In one of the kidnappings this week, in which three agents were taken, an explosive device had been “placed and detonated” in a vehicle the officers were moving in, police said.

In Esmeraldas, in the northwest of the country, two vehicles were set on fire with one causing a blaze at a gas station.

In the capital Quito, the police found a burned vehicle with traces of gas cylinders inside. Residents reported on social media that they had heard a loud explosion in the area.

Police also said they had received reports of an explosion at a pedestrian bridge outside Quito and attended “over 20 emergencies during (Monday) evening and overnight (Tuesday) in different parts of the country. There are currently no known casualties related to the explosions.

Prison chaos

Ecuador’s penitentiary service, the SNAI, said that at least six incidents took place inside prison facilities Monday, including disturbances and retention of penitentiary agents. This situation in the prisons, they say, has not been controlled.

Meanwhile, another alleged gang leader, Fabricio Colon Pico, escaped from a prison in Riobamba in the last few hours, according to the city’s mayor Jhon Vinueza.

Colon Pico had been captured last Friday after being publicly identified by Ecuador’s Attorney General Diana Salazar as being part of a plan to attack her. Along with Colon Pico, 38 other inmates escaped, of which 12 have been recaptured, the SNAI told CNN.

Ecuador’s Armed Forces said they carried out control operations Monday night and early Tuesday in the most conflict-ridden areas.

On the political side, Ecuador’s National Assembly is holding an emergency meeting to “generate concrete actions in face of the national commotion and multiple acts that threaten public peace.”

The search for Adolfo Macias, more popularly known by his alias “Fito,” continued as more than 3,000 police officers and members of the armed forces have been deployed to find him, the government said on Sunday. Ecuador authorities said they have not yet pinpointed the exact time and date that Macias escaped prison.

Macías is the leader of Los Choneros, one of Ecuador’s most feared gangs, which has been linked to maritime drug trafficking to Mexico and the US in coordination with Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel and the Oliver Sinisterra Front in Colombia, according to the Insight Crime research center.

He was jailed after being convicted of drug trafficking. Before his assassination, the late Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio said in July that he had been threatened by Macías and warned against continuing with his campaign against gang violence for the leadership.

CNN’s Karol Suarez contributed to this report.