When the military entered Latacunga prison in Cotopaxi, Ecuador on the afternoon of January 14, the inmates knew they were coming. The day before, the gang that ran the prison, the Lobos, had released the guards they had taken hostage and word had got around that the soldiers were coming in to clean house. 

But no one was prepared for what followed.

“They came in pointing their weapons at us, ready to kill,” remembers Nicolás,* who was released from Latacunga in early May after serving a three-year sentence. 

“They grabbed us all, pushed our heads below our knees and stepped on our fingers with their boots. They kicked us in the back, kicked us in the head, in the neck while they searched the cells, throwing out everything that was in there.”

Then, the torture began.

On two occasions, they grabbed Nicolás and thrust his head into a tank of icy water, then jolted it with electrical current. 

The soldiers demanded information about stashes of weapons and drugs. But they did not just target gang members.

“It was against everyone,” Nicolás said.

SEE ALSO: Ecuador’s Explosive War on Gangs Lacks Exit Strategy

It has now been four months since the military was deployed to take control of Ecuador’s prisons, and despite the government cutting off almost all access to the prisons, stories of abuse have begun to seep out through released prisoners, family members, lawyers, and human rights organizations. And while the government continues to claim victory over the prison gangs that had been terrorizing the country, the human cost of its policies is only just beginning to be counted.

Casualties of ‘War’

The militarization of Ecuador’s prisons began with a declaration of war

On January 8, Ecuador’s new president Daniel Noboa declared a 60-day state of emergency after the escape of the country’s most notorious gang boss, Adolfo Macías, alias “Fito,” unleashed criminal chaos across the country, with riots in the prisons and a series of apparently coordinated attacks on the outside. 

The country, the president announced, was in an “internal armed conflict” with 22 “terrorist” gangs. One of Noboa’s first moves in his new war was to send in the military to seize enemy territory: the prisons that had been taken over and converted into criminal command centers by gangs such as the Choneros, the Lobos, and the Tiguerones.

While coverage of the crisis spread around the world, for the families of the over 30,000 people held in Ecuador’s prisons, it was the start of a period of desperate silence as all communications between prisoners and the world outside were severed.

For Andrea,* whose husband is imprisoned in the Rodeo prison in Portoviejo, the breaking of that silence was shattering. 

After the military took over Rodeo in early February, Andrea and other families knew nothing of what was happening inside except for the prison director’s claims that “things are under control.” Until she received a video call.

“I saw my husband lying on his back on the floor, and the only thing that he said to me was that they had inserted a pole in his anus,” she told InSight Crime. “At that moment, I wanted to lose my mind.”

When she spoke to him again weeks later, his head had been split open from where guards had kicked him, and he had been assaulted with tear gas. As she spoke to other family members of prisoners, Andrea realized these were far from isolated incidents.

“It is not just my husband’s case, there have been countless cases,” she said.

SEE ALSO: How Criminal Elites in Ecuador Twist Legal Norms to Skirt Justice

Since that first call, Andrea has been fighting to get her husband out of prison, as he now meets the requirements for conditional release. She has also worked with lawyers and other family members, demanding action from the prison authorities, prosecutors, and Ecuador’s human rights ombudsman to stop the abuses taking place in the prison and to restore the rights of those inside. 

But nothing has changed.

“Even though I have sent official letters, I have documents sealed and signed, I still haven’t had a response from the prison director. He won’t show his face,” she said.

InSight Crime requested comment on the accusations of rights violations and abuses from the Defense Ministry, the President’s office, the National Service of Comprehensive Attention for Adults Deprived of Liberty and Adolescent Offenders (Servicio Nacional de Atención Integral a Personas Adultas Privadas de la Libertad y a Adolescentes Infractores – SNAI), the army, and the navy, but none had responded by the time of publication.

Sickness and Starvation

Families around the country have faced similar experiences, as they have watched their loved ones’ health suffer amid medical neglect and food shortages.

“Everyone closes doors on us because we are family members of prisoners, who can we turn to, where can we go?” said Gabriela Anangonó, the wife of a prisoner held in Latacunga.

Her husband, Gabriela told InSight Crime, has stage-one cancer, but is one of the many prisoners with serious medical conditions that is being denied treatment.

“My husband is vomiting blood, he can’t get up, he can’t take it anymore,” she said.

SEE ALSO: Ecuador Faces a Tangled Web in Its War on Gangs

In many prisons, even those without medical conditions have seen their heath deteriorate after a dispute between the government and a company contracted to provide food to inmates cut off the supply for prisons across the north of the country, leaving those on the inside on the edge of starvation.

Prison officials were warned of the looming food crisis in mid-April, according to internal documents obtained by InSight Crime. But more than six weeks later, it has now spread to other prisons. In late May, authorities told inmates in the Guayaquil penitentiary complex — a collection of facilities that together house over a third of the national prison population — that supplies are now running out, according to a current prisoner who communicated with InSight Crime by text message.

“The hunger is killing them,” said Gabriela.

The Smell of Death

Between the violence and the impact on prisoners’ health, there has been a rise in recorded deaths since the intervention began, according to the state’s own human rights watchdog. While authorities have refused to release information on many suspected cases, the ombudsman’s office recorded 24 deaths around the country in the first two months, some of which were registered as violent deaths with signs of torture.

While all visits have been suspended since the military takeover, some lawyers have been able to talk to prisoners directly after filing habeas corpus suits for legal representation, allowing them a glimpse of the conditions behind prison walls.

One of those lawyers is Patricio Almeida Torres, who has been representing over 100 families at Latacunga, carrying out short visits with the inmates to take them messages from their families — and to hear their stories of the abuses taking place inside. 

On one occasion, Almeida was also granted access to the facility, accompanying a judge, and other officials to verify conditions inside. What he saw left him horrified. 

“In Latacunga, it smells of death,” he told InSight Crime.

The prisoners, he says, are confined to bare, overcrowded cells for 23 hours a day. If any of them make a noise, they are beaten. They are only let out to eat, when they are herded around the prison with their hands around their necks and their eyes fixed on the floors. If any of them pauses or stumbles, they are beaten. 

They eat standing up — when there is food — although sometimes the guards hurl the food on the floor, leaving them to eat “like animals,” he said. 

“If they don’t kill them with hunger, they are going to make them go crazy,” he said.

For Almeida though, the cruelest punishment is the isolation. His visits are the only human contact the prisoners he represents have aside from their cellmates and military guards. The visits are short, and he is not even allowed to carry in letters from families.

“They check us to make sure we are not bringing in love letters because they say they are in code,” he said. “But if they are under military control all the time, what are they going to do inside, what crimes are they going to plan?”

For Almeida, the military’s motives are less about preventing crimes and more about sending a message to the prisoners.

“This is what we are saying to them: society has forgotten about you, people are going to get tired, they are not going to come to see you, they are not going to fight to know about you.”

A New Perpetrator

To show their loved ones this is not the case, dozens of mothers, children, and other family members of prisoners gathered outside the walls of the Litoral penitentiary in Guayaquil for Mother’s Day on May 12 to send messages through a loudspeaker and by singing songs and releasing balloons carrying words for those inside.

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One of the mothers, who did not want to be identified, told InSight Crime that the only way she has been able to confirm her son is still alive is by bribing a military guard $20 for a phone call.

“Hearing the voice of my son, telling me, ‘Mom, I am still alive,’ is the only thing that gives me security,” she said. “Today my son is alive, but tomorrow, the day after, I don’t know.”

The families in Guayaquil have been working with the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (Comité Permanente por la Defensa de los Derechos – CDH). As well as supporting the families, CDH has worked to expose the abuses and human rights violations committed since the military intervention began. It has so far documented over 100 cases, and has reported four alleged rapes and two cases of collective torture to prosecutors.

The CDH’s Fernando Bastias told InSight Crime that what they have seen and heard was a near inevitable consequence of turning over the entire system to the military.

“Our position from day one has been that [the military] can go in to support the work of the police and the prison guards, but you can’t place them in charge, firstly, because it is not their legal jurisdiction, and secondly because they are not trained for this,” he said. “If they believe they can take charge of a penitentiary center, they are going to transform it into a torture center.”

While breaking the stranglehold of the gangs over the prisons may have been necessary, replacing their rule with military rule is not the solution, he added.

“It is a change of perpetrator,” he said.  “Now it is not the gang, it’s the armed forces.”

*The names of some sources have been changed to protect their identities

Additional reporting by María Fernanda Ramírez, Gavin Voss, and Mathew Charles

Featured image: An Ecuadorian soldier stands guard over a line of prisoners in the Litoral Penitentiary in Guayaquil. Credit: AP