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Ecuador declares emergency prison after dozens killed in gang battle, some beheaded

QUITO, Ecuador – The Ecuadorian president has declared a state of emergency in the prison system following a battle between gang members in a coastal dungeon that killed at least 116 people and injured 80 in what authorities consider the worst bloodbath ever to be seen in a prison in the country.

At least five of the dead were beheaded, officials said.

President Guillermo Lasso on Wednesday declared a state of emergency, which will give the government powers such as the deployment of police and soldiers inside prisons. The order came a day after bloodshed at Litoral Penitentiary in Guayaquil which officials blamed on gangs linked to international drug cartels fighting for control of the facility.

Coffins for the bodies of killed inmates. Angel DeJesus / AP

Lasso, visibly moved by the carnage, told a press conference that what happened in the prison was “bad and sad”. He also said he could not guarantee authorities had regained control of the lockdown.

“It is unfortunate that prisons are being turned into land of power struggles by criminal gangs,” he said, adding that he would act with “absolute firmness” to regain control of Litoral prison and prevent violence from spreading to other penitentiaries.

Images circulating on social media showed dozens of bodies in prison pavilions 9 and 10 and scenes that looked like battlefields. The fighting took place with guns, knives and bombs, officials said. Earlier, the regional police commander Fausto Buenaño had said that bodies had been found in the pipes of the prison.

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Outside the prison morgue, relatives of inmates cried, with some describing to reporters the cruelty with which their loved ones were killed, beheaded and dismembered.

“In the history of the country, there has not been an incident similar or close to this one,” said Ledy Zúñiga, the former president of the National Rehabilitation Council of Ecuador.

Zúñiga, who was also the country’s justice minister in 2016, said she regretted that steps were not taken to prevent another massacre following the deadly prison riots last February.

Earlier, officials said violence erupted following a dispute between gangs at “Los Lobos” and “Los Choneros” prison.

Colonel Mario Pazmiño, former director of Ecuadorian military intelligence, said the bloody fighting shows that “transnational organized crime has penetrated the structure” of Ecuadorian prisons, adding that the Mexican cartels of Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation operate through local gangs.

“They want to sow fear,” he told The Associated Press on Wednesday, urging the government to temporarily cede control of the prisons to the national police. “The more radical and violent the way they murder,” the more they achieve their goal of control, he added.

The Ecuadorian president said that care points had been set up for relatives of detainees with food and psychological support. He added that a $ 24 million program to take care of the country’s prisons will be accelerated, starting with investments in infrastructure and technology in Litoral prison.

Former director of Ecuador’s prison office, Fausto Cobo, said that inside penitentiaries the authorities face a “threat with power equal to or greater than that of the state itself” . He said that while security forces are to enter prisons with shields and unarmed, they are greeted by inmates with large caliber weapons.

In July, the president declared another state of emergency in the Ecuadorian prison system following several violent episodes that resulted in the deaths of more than 100 inmates.

These deaths have occurred in various prisons and not in a single facility like Tuesday’s battle.