GUAYAQUIL/QUITO — Ecuador faced a string of violent incidents on Tuesday, including the on-air invasion of a TV station by gunmen, as President Daniel Noboa named 22 gangs as terrorist organizations and military targets.
Police arrested 13 gunmen who took over television station TC during a live broadcast, while elsewhere at least seven police officers were kidnapped and there were several explosions around the country.
Mr. Noboa, who took office in November promising to stem drug trade-related violence, declared a 60-day state of emergency on Monday in response to prison violence — including hostage-takings of guards by inmates — and the apparent escape of Los Choneros gang leader Adolfo Macias over the weekend.
In a revised decree on Tuesday, Mr. Noboa recognized an “internal armed conflict” and identified nearly two dozen gangs as terrorist groups, including Los Choneros.
The government has said the violence is a reaction to Mr. Noboa’s plan to build a new high security prison and transfer jailed gang leaders.
“Today’s events show that the actions and decisions taken by the national government are gravely affecting criminal structures, and as an answer they have created a wave of violence to frighten the populace,” Admiral Jaime Vela, head of the joint command of the armed forces, said after a security meeting with Mr. Noboa and other officials.
All the groups mentioned in Mr. Noboa’s decree are now military targets, Mr. Vela added.
Prison transfers of major leaders have historically led to violence. Hundreds of inmates have been killed in recent years.
The unrest in Ecuador led Peru’s government to declare an emergency along its border with Ecuador, while Brazil, Colombia and Chile expressed their support for the Ecuadorean government.
The take-over of TC’s studio in Guayaquil was broadcast live for about 20 minutes, as people wearing balaclavas and mostly dressed in black wielded guns and accosted staffers huddling on the floor.
Gunshots and yelling were heard on the live feed, and some of the invaders gestured at the camera. Someone could be heard yelling “no police.”
TC, which broadcasts nationally, shares a site with another public broadcaster, Gamavision, and several radio stations.
The attackers entered through Gamavision’s reception, assaulting staff there and leaving dynamite behind, TC news coordinator and reporter Leonardo Flores Moreno told Reuters earlier on Tuesday, when the operation to retake the site was still ongoing. “We were in a meeting and they alerted us and we were able to hide,” said Mr. Flores Moreno.
Police said their operation resulted in the confiscation of explosives and guns, and police social media posts showed young men with their hands zip-tied behind their backs kneeling on the floor.
“All hostages were freed … the perpetrators will confront justice and be sentenced for terrorist acts,” the police said on X.
The channel was back on-air for its evening news broadcast, with anchors saying the attorney general’s office was on site collecting evidence. Two employees were injured, the channel said.
In the southern city of Machala, Quito and Los Rios province seven police officers were kidnapped in three separate incidents, police said earlier.
The three officers taken in Machala were freed late on Tuesday, the police said, and ten arrests were made.
The police confirmed explosions in Esmeraldas and Los Rios, while mayor’s offices in Cuenca and Quito confirmed others, and the attorney general’s office said it was investigating one in Guayaquil. Local media reported additional explosions in Loja and Machala.
Authorities have not given a cause for any of the explosions, and no one has claimed responsibility.
Prisons agency SNAI said earlier on Tuesday a group of prisoners escaped from a penitentiary in Riobamba, including accused gang member Fabricio Colon Pico, who was allegedly involved in an attack plot against the attorney general. Seventeen of the 39 escapees have been recaptured, the prosecutor’s office said.
Eleven prison guards who had been taken hostage over the past two days have been released, SNAI added, but 139 guards and other staff are still being held.
Local authorities in Guayaquil said there were “take-over” incidents at five hospitals in the country’s largest city, but that police and soldiers had restored order. It was unclear exactly what the incidents entailed.
Some Ecuadoreans are already questioning Mr. Noboa’s efforts to control violence, which stymied his predecessor. Mr. Noboa plans to hold a plebiscite this year focused on security efforts.
Violent deaths nationally rose to 8,008 in 2023, the government has said, nearly double the 2022 figure of over 4,500.
The University of Guayaquil said reports of criminals entering its facilities were false, despite social media reports.
Ecuadorean sovereign bonds fell as concern over the violence spread to financial markets. — Reuters