Ecuador’s President Daniel Noboa on Monday declared a state of emergency for the South American nation after a notorious gang leader escaped from prison, heightening security fears as authorities struggle to control the bloodshed of a bloody criminal turf war.
José Adolfo Macías Villamar, leader of the feared Los Choneros drug cartel better known by his alias “Fito,” escaped from prison in the coastal city of Guayaquil on Sunday, according to authorities. More than 3,000 police officers and members of the armed forces have been deployed to search for him, the government said.
The state of emergency will last for 60 days and imposes a nightly curfew from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., Noboa said Monday, adding it grants security forces “all the political and legal support for their actions.”
“The time is over when drug trafficking convicts, hitmen, and organized crime dictate to the government what to do,” Noboa said in a video announcement. He did not mention Fito’s escape.
Noboa, the son of a banana tycoon, became president in November following an election driven by concerns over rising violence and a worsening security situation in the Latin American nation just months after the high-profile assassination of another presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio.
On Monday, Noboa said had authorized security forces to retake control of Ecuador’s restive prison system, which he said, “has been lost in recent years.”
Ecuador, home to the Galapagos islands and a tourist-friendly dollar economy, was once known as an “island of peace,” nestled between two of the world’s largest cocaine producers, Peru and Colombia.
But Ecuador’s deep ports have made it a key transit point for cocaine making its way to consumers in the United States and Europe. And its dollarized economy also makes it a strategic location for traffickers seeking to launder money.
Fito was sentenced in 2011 to 34 years in prison for crimes including drug trafficking and murder, according to Reuters.
Analysts previously told CNN that Ecuadorian gangs such as the Choneros were working with foreign syndicates including Mexican cartels, Brazilian urban gangs, and even Albanian mafia cells, fueling the ongoing conflict in the country.
Authorities accuse the Choneros of controlling Ecuador’s main prisons, which have long been the main theater of violence in the country. Security forces have struggled to confront the gangs inside overcrowded prisons, where inmates often take control of branches of the penitentiaries and run criminal networks from behind bars, according to authorities.
Following Fito’s escape, Ecuador’s prison agency on Sunday reported “incidents” in at least six prisons in different provinces.