Guayaquil (Ecuador) (AFP) -
The death toll from bloody clashes between rival gangs in an Ecuador prison has surpassed 100, with 52 more wounded, the government prison authority said Wednesday, as soldiers surrounded the facility -- one of the country's many overburdened and understaffed jails.
Inmates went to war armed with guns and grenades on Tuesday at the Guayaquil prison complex: a clash between prisoners believed to be linked to Mexican drug gangs -- mainly the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels.
Soldiers and a tank guarded the complex Wednesday as police on horseback patrolling the perimeter were confronted by worried family members of the men locked up inside.
'We want information because we don't know anything about our families, our sons,' said one woman, who would not give her name. 'I have my son there.'
Tuesday's violence was the latest in a series of bloody prison clashes that have claimed the lives of about 180 inmates in Ecuador so far this year.
The SNAI prison authority said in a tweet that the death of 'more than 100' prisoners had been confirmed, with 52 more wounded.
At least six were beheaded, the national prosecutor's office said earlier in the day, adding that two police officers were wounded in the operation to retake control of the prison.
Officers were attacked by inmates with guns.
President Guillermo Lasso announced on Twitter that he was declaring a 'state of exception,' which will allow him to suspend rights and use public force to restore calm.
Lasso said that he would head a security committee in Guayaquil to control the emergency, but also guaranteed protection of 'human rights for all those involved.'
A police charge on the prison had prevented 'more deaths,' said the police chief for the city of Guayaquil, Fausto Buenano.
Ecuador's prison system has become a battleground for thousands of prisoners with ties to powerful Mexican drug gangs.
On February 23, simultaneous riots at four jails including Guayaquil left 79 inmates dead, several of them beheaded.
- 'A war' -
Last week, police confiscated two pistols, a revolver, some 500 rounds of ammunition, a hand grenade, several knives, two sticks of dynamite and homemade explosives at one of the city's prisons.
Two weeks ago, Guayaquil's Prison Number 4 was attacked by drones, part of 'a war between international cartels,' prison authorities said. There were no casualties in that attack.
'There has been a prison crisis since 2010, with an average of 25 homicides per year, but it has accelerated significantly from 2017 to the peak of this year,' Ecuadoran security expert Fernando Carrion told AFP.
Ecuador's prison system has 65 facilities designed for about 30,000 but which house an actual population of 39,000 inmates. There are chronic staffing shortages.
The country's human rights ombudsman said there were 103 killings in prisons in 2020, with corruption enabling inmates to bring in arms and ammunition.
Located between Colombia and Peru, the world's leading cocaine producers, Ecuador is a key transit for drug shipments to the United States and Europe.
Guayaquil is Ecuador's main port city.
Between January and August this year, Ecuadoran authorities seized about 116 tons of drugs, mainly cocaine, compared to 128 tons in all of 2020.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has condemned the ongoing violence in Ecuador's prisons.