Violence rattles Ecuador as a nightclub arson kills 2 and a bomb scare sparks an evacuation – Metro US

Violence rattles Ecuador as a nightclub arson kills 2 and a bomb scare sparks an evacuation

Ecuador Violence
Soldiers stop a pedestrian to search for weapons as the man’s dog jumps around, during military patrols in residential areas of northern Quito, Ecuador, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024. President Daniel Noboa decreed Monday a national state of emergency due to a wave in crime, a measure that lets authorities suspend people’s rights and mobilize the military. The government also imposed a curfew. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — A bomb threat sent an anti-explosives unit scrambling into a bustling area of Ecuador’s tense capital Thursday while authorities in an eastern city reported a nightclub arson killed two people as the South American country staggers under a spike of violence blamed on drug gangs.

Police in the capital, Quito, said they evacuated people from the area surrounding the Playón de la Marín bus station when they were alerted about a backpack with an alleged explosive placed in a garbage can.

The backpack turned out to not have any explosives, authorities said, but it followed five similar incidents in the capital Wednesday with actual explosives. Those bombs — in two vehicles, at a pedestrian bridge and near a prison — caused minor damage but no deaths or injuries.

Meanwhile, authorities said unknown suspects set fire to a nightclub in the Amazon city of Coca, killing at least two people and injuring nine others. The blaze, which spread to 11 nearby stores, is under investigation, officials said.

Ecuador is in the grips of a crime wave tied to drug trafficking gangs. Ecuadoreans worry the violence will only escalate in a country where a presidential candidate was assassinated last year.

President Daniel Noboa, who earlier this week declared an emergency and a virtual war on the gangs by authorizing the military to act against them, said Thursday that Ecuador needs “tougher laws, honest judges” and the possibility of extraditing dangerous criminals in order to fight terrorism and organized crime.

“We are not going to let a group of terrorists stop the country,” Noboa said in a recorded message sent to media outlets in which he also presented the design of two new prisons. He said the corrections system has been “controlled by mafias” for decades and is in urgent need of new facilities.

Noboa said prisons will be built in two provinces and each will have super-, maximum- and high-security units and will be equipped with technology to block cellphone and satellite signals. He previously said the new prisons would be ready in 10 to 11 months.

Many people are staying at home and schools and stores have been shuttered as soldiers patrol the streets of Ecuador’s biggest cities.

Tensions heightened Tuesday when a group of men wielding explosives and guns invaded a television station’s live afternoon newscast in Guayaquil, the Pacific port city that has been the epicenter of a surge in violence that began roughly three years ago. Ecuadorians watched as the intruders threatened and assaulted employees at the station. No one was killed and 13 suspects were arrested, but the violent broadcast stunned much of the region.

Ecuadorian authorities attribute the country’s spike in violence to a power vacuum prompted by the killing in 2020 of Jorge Zambrano, alias “Rasquiña” or “JL,” the then-leader of the local Los Choneros gang. Members carry out contract killings, run extortion operations, move and sell drugs, and rule prisons.

Ecuador’s neighbors, Colombia and Peru, are the world’s largest cocaine producers. Los Choneros, one of the country’s most violent gangs, and similar groups linked to Mexican and Colombian cartels are fighting over drug-trafficking routes and control of territory, including in prisons, where more than 450 inmates have been slain since 2021.

A February 2021 riot among rival gang members at Ecuador’s most violent prison left at least 79 inmates dead. The following September, 116 inmates were killed in another gang battle at the same Litoral prison, with several of them beheaded.

The violence has spread from prisons to the streets, turning the once-peaceful Ecuador into one of the most violent countries in the region. Last year was Ecuador’s bloodiest on record, with more than 7,600 homicides, up from 4,600 in the prior year.

Gang members in prisons throughout the country have taken corrections personnel hostage since Sunday, when the current leader of Los Choneros vanished from prison.

On Thursday, inmates managed to increase to 178 the number of corrections personnel they are holding hostage, according to the prisons agency. A union that represents prison employees has asked officials to guarantee the “physical and psychological integrity” of the hostages.

Noboa, who took office in November, won a special presidential election with the promise of reducing the terrifying, drug-driven crime wave within 1 1/2 years in office. His anti-crime campaign proposals range from turning ships into floating jails to getting police more equipment.