Ecuador declares 'internal armed conflict' after attack on live TV
Ecuadoran President Daniel Noboa ordered military operations on Tuesday against the country's powerful criminal groups after hooded gunmen stormed a television studio and gangsters threatened to execute security forces and civilians.
Noboa declared the country in a state of "internal armed conflict" just hours after gangsters declared "war" in an escalating security crisis sparked by the prison escape of one of Ecuador's most powerful criminal bosses.
Long a peaceful haven sandwiched between top cocaine exporters Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has seen violence explode in recent years as enemy gangs with links to Mexican and Colombian cartels vie for control.
"I have ordered the armed forces to carry out military operations to neutralize these groups," Noboa wrote on social media.
His comments came shortly after attackers carrying rifles and grenades stormed the studio of TC television in the port city of Guayaquil as a woman was heard amid gunshots pleading: "Don't shoot, please don't shoot."
The intruders forced the terrified crew onto the ground, and a person could be heard screaming in apparent pain as the studio lights went off, but the live broadcast continued.
"Please, they came in to kill us. God don't let this happen. The criminals are on air," a TC employee told AFP in a WhatsApp message.
After about 30 minutes of chaos, officers were seen entering the studio while someone then called out that they "have a wounded companion."
Earlier Tuesday, gangsters kidnapped police officers and set off explosives in several cities in response to a 60-day state of emergency and nighttime curfew declared by Noboa.
Noboa, 36, was elected in October on a pledge to fight rampant drug-related crime and violence in the South American country - once considered a bastion of peace, but now a key stop on the US- and Europe-bound cocaine trade.
He vowed Monday to bring the fight to the cartels after a powerful gang leader, Jose Adolfo Macias, known as "Fito," escaped from prison the previous day.
On Tuesday, the gangs hit back.
Authorities reported multiple explosions and said seven police officers had been kidnapped.
A chilling video circulating on social media showed three of the kidnapped officers sitting on the ground with a gun pointed at them as one is forced to read a statement addressed to Noboa.
"You declared war, you will get war," the terrified officer reads. "You declared a state of emergency. We declare police, civilians and soldiers to be the spoils of war."
The statement added that anyone found on the street after 11:00 pm (0500 GMT) "will be executed".
The presidency and metro stations in Quito were under military guard on Tuesday.
Police say an explosive device was thrown near a police station in Esmeraldas on the northwest coast and two vehicles were burned in other areas, with no one killed or injured.
In Quito, a car was reportedly blown up, and a device exploded near a pedestrian bridge.
A manhunt is underway for Fito, who had been serving a 34-year sentence for organized crime, drug trafficking and murder.
The 44-year-old leader of the powerful Los Choneros gang is believed to have escaped just hours before police arrived to inspect the Guayaquil prison where he was held.
On Tuesday, officials said another narco boss - Los Lobos leader Fabricio Colon Pico - has also escaped since his arrest last Friday for alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Ecuador's attorney general.
Unrest broke out Monday at penitentiaries in six of Ecuador's 24 provinces, according to Ecuador's prison authority SNAI, with guards taken hostage at some of the facilities.
Heavily armed police and soldiers entered the prisons of El Oro, Loja, Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Azuay and Pichincha, after which the military distributed images of half-naked inmates rounded up in courtyards.
The SNAI has not revealed whether the guards have since been released.
Noboa said the uprisings appeared to be revenge for his actions to "regain control" of the country's prisons.
On Monday, he vowed to "not negotiate with terrorists nor rest until we return peace to all Ecuadorans."
Drug violence has taken a heavy toll on the country.
The murder rate quadrupled from 2018 to 2022, while last year became the most violent yet with more than 7,800 homicides in the country of about 17 million people and 220 tons of drugs seized, a new record.
Since February 2021, clashes between prisoners have left more than 460 dead, many beheaded or burnt alive.