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South American country names 6th prison chief in 2 years as gang violence crisis spirals

International criminal organizations looking to gain a foothold in the world's cocaine trade have exploited Ecuador's lax security to create a gang violence crisis.

Ecuador has named its sixth prisons chief in less than two years after a month of intense violence in the country’s penal system.

Luis Ordonez, a retired soldier and intelligence expert, is replacing Guillermo Rodriguez, who resigned last week after an admission that he failed to improve SNAI, the nation's prisons authority.

Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso, who took office on May 24, 2021, approved the appointment on Tuesday.

The United Nations Human Rights Office last year raised concerns about "the dire situation in various detention centers and prisons in Ecuador."

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"The recent violence is the consequence of decades of state abandonment," said Maria Luisa Romero, who led a U.N. delegation to visit the country

"Detainees have been living in a state of tension and constant fear in prisons lacking essential services and basic resources," she added. "Some spaces in these prisons are self-governed by detainees who are members of criminal organizations."

The country’s homicide rate has quadrupled since 2018, when the rate stood at 5.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, the BBC reported. Citizens went from saying they felt safe to lacking any confidence in the police to keep them secure.

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The skyrocketing crime, according to the BBC, is blamed on an increasingly fractured control over cocaine production in neighboring Colombia and Peru, which are the largest producers of the drug in the world.

The significant reduction of Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia (FARC) after a peace accord signed in 2017 led to new players emerging on the market to try and stake a claim on the lucrative trade, including foreign players from the Mexican drug cartels and even criminal groups in the Balkans.

Gangs seized on lax border control between the neighboring countries and Ecuador, which has major port access to the Pacific coast and good infrastructure. They empowered local gangs and created alliances throughout the country to take advantage of a security force lacking experience fighting cartels.

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The ensuing surge in criminal activity reached deep into the prison system, where inmates regularly get into fights on behalf of their benefactors, often resulting in dozens of deaths each time.

At least 12 inmates died in an April prison riot between gangs in La Penitenciaria in the city of Guayaquil. 

A riot last month left 31 dead and 14 wounded as more than 2,700 soldiers stormed the prison to retake control of the facility, CBS News reported. By that time, at least 420 people had died in the riots since 2021, some of them decapitated or burned alive.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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