HRW claims that massacres in Ecuador’s prisons are due to “lack of state control”.

The NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has denounced Thursday that overcrowding and lack of state control in Ecuador’s prisons have allowed gang members detained in them to commit several massacres that have claimed the lives of more than 350 detainees since 2021.

The agency has documented that a prison massacre that took place in Guayaquil in November 2021, in which more than 60 detainees were killed. Investigators have found that prison gang control over parts of the prison enabled the massacre, and that authorities failed to respond adequately to prevent the killings, assist the victims’ families, and investigate the crimes.

“These violent events are an alarming reminder of the authorities’ failure to effectively control prisons and protect the lives and safety of Ecuadorians,” said HRW’s acting Americas director, Tamara Taraciuk Broner.

“Unless President Guillermo Lasso prioritizes addressing overcrowding and wresting control of detention centers from organized crime, there is likely to be more bloodshed,” added Broner.

Poor prison conditions across the country, including overcrowding, have contributed to a series of gang-related mass killings in jails.

Since 2021, there have been seven massacres in prisons in the cities of Guayaquil, Latacunga, Santo Domingo and Cuenca, leaving more than 350 detainees dead and dozens injured. This includes 12 dead in Santo Domingo prison on July 18, 2022.

Thus, HRW asserts that detention centers are often controlled by criminal organizations that extort money from detainees and their families.

The agency has interviewed 30 people and reviewed information and statistics provided by the Ombudsman’s Office and the State Attorney General’s Office on prison conditions and criminal investigations into massacres, as well as judicial documents and a number of secondary sources.

However, the Police and the national penitentiary authority, called the National Service of Integral Attention to Adults Deprived of Liberty and Adolescent Offenders (SNAI), did not respond to HRW’s requests for information.

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In September 2021, President Guillermo Lasso declared several “states of exception” in the country’s prisons that allowed his government to deploy soldiers to control detention centers, according to the organization.

In February 2022, the government adopted a rehabilitation “public policy,” an action plan to strengthen access to health, education and other basic services for detainees and improve prison conditions.

In December 2021, President Lasso convened a commission of experts to reform the country’s prison system. On June 16, the commission released its final report concluding that Ecuador’s prisons are “punishment warehouses” rather than rehabilitation centers due to their punitive approach and lack of adequate programs.

The experts stated that overcrowding has increased violence in prisons, and noted reports of inhuman and degrading treatment, and corruption, by Police and prison guards, as well as lack of access to medical care for detainees.

In this regard, as of mid-July, Ecuadorian authorities had not convicted anyone for involvement in the November killings or any other prison massacre that occurred in 2021. As of December, the Attorney General’s Office had opened 26 investigations into “violent acts” that occurred in prisons in 2021, including the massacres.

On the other hand, several relatives of victims have assured Human Rights Watch that they would have spent days trying to find out if their loved ones had survived.

Also, relatives have claimed that they have not received any reparations, compensation, or support from the government.

Thus, HRW has emphasized that Ecuador’s prisons “are overcrowded,” and that some of them have approximately “twice as many detainees as their official capacity, and insufficient and poorly trained guards.”

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The agency has explained that the overcrowding appears to be caused by the excessive use of pre-trial detention, delays in granting prison benefits established in Ecuadorian law, such as semi-open regimes or early release, and harsh anti-drug policies that in recent years have increased penalties for drug-related offenses.

In this context, an official from the Ombudsman’s Office told Human Rights Watch that among the victims of the November massacre were 13 people who were in pretrial detention, six detainees who had pending appeals, and two people whose release had been ordered and were awaiting their written release orders.

HRW reviewed court documents relating to detainees who were reported killed by the Ombudsman’s Office and other authorities. At least 15 victims reported killed by authorities were eligible under Ecuadorian law to be transferred to a “semi-open” regime or conditionally released.

In addition, according to the documents — although it is unclear how many of them had requested transfer or release — at least three other prisoners had been convicted of a low-level drug offense, according to the organization.

HRW has recalled that under international human rights law, Ecuador has an obligation to ensure that all persons deprived of their liberty are treated humanely and with respect for their inherent dignity.

This heightened duty of care includes ensuring their safety, as well as providing adequate accommodation, food and medical care, among other requirements. Ecuador has an obligation under international human rights law to promptly and thoroughly investigate any deaths in prisons.

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