By Yury Garcia and Alexandra Valencia
GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador (Reuters) – Ecuador on Thursday sought to identify the remains of the 116 inmates killed during a riot at one of its largest prisons earlier this week, the latest bout of violence authorities have linked to gangs vying for control of drug trafficking routes.
Dozens of relatives of inmates at the Penitenciaria del Litoral in the country’s largest city of Guayaquil gathered outside a morgue seeking information on loved ones, after the deadliest outbreak of prison violence in Ecuador’s history on Tuesday in which 80 people were also injured.
Police investigators asked family members for photographs of inmates or details of features like scars or tattoos to help them identify bodies.
Police commander Tannya Varela told reporters that the casualty count could rise, as officers were still investigating. Earlier on Thursday, the national police sent 400 officers to regain control of the detention center. Soldiers also entered the prison to maintain order.
“We have not yet completed the intervention in the penitentiary, so it is possible that there are other bodies inside, and some of the injured could die from their wounds,” Varela said.
The violence came after 79 and 22 people died in prison riots in February and July, respectively. Authorities linked the earlier clashes to rival local gangs with ties to transnational criminal groups battling for control over Ecuador’s drug trade.
According to Mario Pazmino, a colonel and former intelligence director for Ecuador’s army, the clashes have increased and grown bloodier recently as Mexican drug cartels, such as the Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generacion cartels, have formed alliances with local gangs.
While not a large drug producer, Ecuador is a major transit hub for cocaine from neighboring Colombia and Peru bound for the United States and Europe, much of it concealed in legitimate container cargo departing from Guayaquil’s port, according to a U.S. State Department report from March.
“This presence of drug trafficking is reflected in a permanent fight over pathways and territory from where drugs leave, and that is what is being replicated in the detention centers, as well as cities where score-settling and assassinations take place,” Pazmino told Reuters.
Asked on Wednesday night whether this week’s clash was linked to drug trafficking, Fausto Cobo, director of Ecuador’s Center for Strategic Intelligence, said the violence was “connected with other serious problems.”
“This is a problem that goes beyond an issue with the penal system,” Cobo told reporters. “It is a threat against the Ecuadorian state.”
‘THIS CANNOT KEEP HAPPENING’
Outside the morgue in Guayaquil, Paola Moreira awaited news of her 24-year-old brother Bryan, who was set to be released from the Penitenciaria del Litoral in just one month.
“He called me on Wednesday at noon and asked me to please help, that everyone from section five had been killed and only two were alive, but our hands were tied and we could not do anything for him,” said Moreira, 26. “So I have come here to wait.”
In a statement posted on Twitter, Ecuador’s chief prosecutor’s office said it was still working on identifying the victims – at least six of whom it said on Tuesday had been decapitated.
Prison overcrowding and underfunding is a major problem across South America and has contributed to riots in recent years in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela, as well as Ecuador. President Guillermo Lasso said on Wednesday he would free up funds and send additional security forces to prisons.
“They have killed so many young men, this cannot keep happening,” Moreira said.
(Reporting by Yury Garcia in Guayaquil, Ecuador and Alexandra Valencia in Quito; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Berkrot and Daniel Wallis)