It was in mid-morning when María Elena Villacís got a WhatsApp message from her brother Darwín, who was jailed in the Litoral penitentiary, a notorious prison in the coastal Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil.
“They’re starting a war in [Wing] 5,” it read. “Call the law, tell them to get into [Wing] 5.”
Knowing the prison’s violent reputation, María Elena replied: “I’m praying for you, for the four of you. Take care for God’s sake.” Then she called the police.
That was the last time she ever heard from Darwín, 27, the brother she was closest to. His mutilated body was returned to the family last Friday, and buried together with those of his two murdered brothers, Daiby, 28, and Jhonny, 25. All three had shared a cell in Wing 5, the centre of a wave of violence which engulfed the prison on 28 September, killing at least 119 inmates and injuring about 80.
Villacís’s only consolation is that a fourth brother, Daniel, was also held in the prison, had survived. He was housed in Wing 11 of Ecuador’s largest jail and escaped the brutal battle in which inmates were hacked to pieces with machetes, stabbed, shot or even blown up with grenades.
It was the deadliest prison riot Ecuador has ever seen, and the scale and savagery of the violence has stunned the country. But it was the third such upheaval in Ecuador this year: in July, 22 prisoners were slaughtered in the same prison; in February, 79 inmates were killed in coordinated clashes between prison gangs across the country.
At a mass in Guayaquil’s cathedral on Sunday, President Guillermo Lasso asked God to comfort “the fathers and mothers, the brothers and sisters, the wives and children” who had lost their loved ones. Just a few months into office, the former banker has laid out $75m to overhaul the country’s prisons as his high approval ratings are dented by the crisis.
Such was the ferocity of the violence, it took days for the security forces to retake control of the prison and recover the bodies, many of which had been mutilated or burned. Maj Rubén Terán, in charge of Guayaquil’s police forensics laboratory, said on Monday night that 107 of the 119 bodies had been identified and 93 had been handed over to their families. But he added discreetly that “12 bodies could not be identified because of the condition in which they were found, as a result of being burned.”
On Tuesday, hundreds of people gathered under the baking midday sun outside the laboratory which doubled as a morgue, looking for their dead or desperate to know what had happened to their prisoner relatives.
Holding up a colour photocopy of a photo of a smiling Afro-Ecuadorian man with short dreadlocks, Tatiana Intrigado, 34, said she wanted to bury her friend, Eduardo José Valencia, but had not been allowed to remove his body as he had never been registered for identity documents.
“It’s been eight days since my boy died and I still can’t get him out of the morgue,” she said.
Luz Proaño, 74, was desperate for news of her grandson, Julio César León. “They told me he’s not on the list of dead or injured but I’ve had no communication with him,” she said.
“I want to know if he’s dead or alive. If he’s alive, I can be at ease,” said Proaño.
Nearby, a group of police officers shared cellphone videos of a decapitated head impaled on a machete. As the video was passed from phone to phone, a young officer chuckled at the shocked reaction of a passerby who was shown the images.
Beheadings, mutilations and torture have for years been the trademark for Mexican drugs cartels, but such barbarity is relatively new to Ecuador which, despite growing crime and insecurity, has one of the lowest homicide rates in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Five years ago, we didn’t have this problem of narco-violence,” Jorge Villacesis, a security company director in Guayaquil, told the Guardian.
The country, sandwiched between Peru and Colombia – the world’s two biggest producers of cocaine – has become a smuggling superhighway. And in the fight to control trafficking routes, Mexican cartels have imported their own conflict – and their own bloody methods.
The feared Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels have recruited local criminal gangs – Los Choneros and Los Lobos respectively – in the battle. The result has been mayhem.
“In Guayaquil, the people are scared to go out on the street. The police are ineffective and the justice system doesn’t work,” said Villacesis. The recent surge in violence in the prison appears to have been driven by a power struggle between imprisoned kingpins – seven of whom were held in Litoral penitentiary.
Bolívar Garzón, the newly appointed director of Ecuador’s prison service, SNAI, confirmed the violence was “the result of a conflict between organised crime groups for power inside the prison”.
“They fought and attacked wing 5, then wings 8 and 9, and finally wings 3 and 6. It was a real massacre, that had no justification whatsoever,” he told the Guardian.
Garzón added that overcrowding was another factor: the 5,000-capacity prison currently holds 8,500 inmates. Prison guards were completely outnumbered, sometimes by up to 300 to one.
The unarmed wardens were also outgunned: as armed police and soldiers retook control of the jail on the weekend, they discovered an arsenal: 13 automatic rifles and handguns, more than 1,000 bullets, 250 bladed weapons, five grenades, as well as 60 mobile phones and six kilos of drugs.
After the riot, the government promised to pardon thousands of elderly, infirm and female prisoners, but for the families whose relatives remain inside the Litoral penitentiary, the trauma is not over.
Outside the heavily guarded entrance, people clamoured for news, or haggled with lawyers who had set up shop on the street outside.
Miriam Huacón, 45, was among the women standing vigil outside the jail, terrified that her son was in mortal danger.
“How would you feel if your son, a drug user, had to come and die in such a nasty jail, surrounded by criminals who started such a tremendous massacre, in which people were cut up,” she said.
Back in her dirt-floored home, María Elena Villacís insisted her brothers had been swept up as easy targets by the police and were not violent gang members. They would have been due for parole this month.
“When they were inside, my brothers never messed with anyone, they never had problems with fights or anything like that,” she said, sitting next to an impromptu shrine to the three men.
“My brothers were unfairly put in that wing with dangerous criminals. If you go to jail and you don’t have money, you can’t get out, because only money talks,” she added.
The Ukraine war in maps: Ukrainian forces battle to recover Snake Island | International
May 13 | The battle for Snake Island
The all-out attack that Russian troops deployed at the beginning of the offensive in Ukraine did not leave out maritime control of the Black Sea: the Kremlin’s naval force soon took up positions the island of Zmiinyi, also known as Snake Island and located around 140 kilometers (87 miles) south of Odessa and 40km (25 miles) from the Romanian coast. The first map of the conflict published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on February 25 showed it under Russian control even then. In a statement in February, the Ukrainian Navy said that the invaders had destroyed infrastructure on this island of one square kilometer. A comparison of satellite images captured before the invasion and in recent days shows that the destruction of the main building occurred between May 6 and 7.
August 23, 2016
May 6, 2022
Areas burnt by earlier attacks
May 7, 2022
May 8, 2022
Area of attack
(shown in video)
British intelligence warned last Tuesday that if Russian troops consolidate their position on the island, deploying air defense cruise missiles, they could control the northwest portion of the Black Sea. The permanent Russian settlement on Snake Islands entails sea, land and air control of that entire area, military strategy expert Oleh Zhdanov told the BBC.
The strategic importance of the islet, which grants control over maritime traffic in the port of Odes, is enough to justify the ongoing struggle for it. The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that it destroyed several planes, helicopters, drones and a landing craft in the early hours of Sunday morning during a Ukrainian attempt to recapture the island. Ukraine claimed that it only attacked Russian troops deployed there. British intelligence stated that Ukraine has used drones to destroy Russian anti-aircraft defenses and supply ships, stranded after the invaders retreated to the Crimean coast following the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
The sensors of the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellites have made it possible to observe hot spots on the island which, in the context of war, can be associated with attacks. These indications of attacks have been recurrent since last February, and particularly intense during the last weekend, coinciding with a video of an attack on the island.
The proximity of Zmiinyi to NATO coasts has not prevented it from becoming a battlefield in the conflict. Armand Gosu, a professor of Russian Political History at the University of Bucharest, explained to Efe news agency that Moscow categorically dominates the Black Sea: “There is a huge military imbalance. Its ships patrol international waters without restriction, which has allowed the Russians to block a maritime outlet from Odessa,” he said. This blockade stifles Ukrainian sea exports that are essential to defend the coastal town from a hypothetical Russian siege like the one suffered by Mariupol.
March 8 A heat source can be seen in the northeast of the island, probably as a result of an attack, as well as a plume of smoke. The area inside the box contains most of the facilities.
March 23 Two weeks later, the Sentinel 2 satellite captured a new hot spot in a nearby area.
May 7 Once again a heat source can be seen, coinciding with a great column of smoke detected by satellites and shown earlier.
May 9 The last available image shows no hot spots, but the island’s vegetation has been largely burnt down as a result of the confrontation.
May 10 | Russian progress
In the two and a half months since the start of the Ukraine invasion, the Russian offensive has changed strategies: at first it sought to take control of the major cities, then focused its efforts on the separatist region of Donbas and on securing the borders. Since then, the frontline has moved in line with modest but systematic Russian advances that have only met with resistance at a spot that’s been highly militarized since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula. The change in the frontline can be seen in the following maps, which show the situation on the ground every two weeks since Russia changed its strategy on March 25. The red color shows areas under Russian control, which have been expanding for the last month and a half.
Donbas is an area covering around 52,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of Costa Rica. It is divided into two oblast (administrative units) – Donetsk and Luhansk. Along the northwest, it borders the Kharkiv region, home to the city of Izyum, which is the starting point for Russia’s attempt to encircle Ukrainian defenders holding the frontline. From there, Russian troops have been trying to advance towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the military headquarters and de facto capital of Donetsk, although they have had limited success.
When the Kremlin’s troops announced that their target was eastern Ukraine, they were already controlling much of Donetsk, Luhansk and the area extending to Kharkiv.
Two weeks later, the situation on the front had barely changed after a reorganization of the invading troops except in the area of Izyum, the new Russian center of operations.
The siege of Mariupol, which made Ukrainian defenders retreat to an industrial site, allowed Russia to free up troops to cement control over the northern end of the city.
Despite Ukrainian counterattacks that are gaining back territory near Kharkiv, the areas under Russian control increasingly encircle the Donbas border
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) believes that the Kremlin’s forces near Izyum are regrouping and resupplying before resuming offensive operations in the southeast and southwest.
In the south of the country, near Crimea and the Black Sea, there is a similar situation: slow but constant Russian advances and reinforced positions in places like Kherson, which was swiftly captured in the early days of the invasion. Ukrainian counterattacks have barely made a dent on Russian forces, who have increased the territory under their control week after week. Moscow has been concentrating anti-aircraft and missile systems in the northern area of Crimea, said the ISW. This could be a prelude to resume offensive operations towards Zaporizhzhia and Kryvyi Rih, in central Ukraine.
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Amazon: Violence in Colombia putting “the lungs of the world” at risk | International
Flying through the Amazon jungle, the pilot, a former Brazilian colonel, descends from 1500 to one thousand meters above sea level to approach the majestic Puré River.
The Puré crosses the border between Colombia and Brazil, a site that has become strategic for illegal mining and drug trafficking. In its channel more than 30 mining vessels can be seen from the colonel’s plane – tirelessly working to extract gold, illegally, from its waters.
In 2015 the National Parks of Colombia built a cabin called Puerto Franco in honor of the researcher Roberto Franco, the first to discover isolated indigenous peoples in Colombia, people who during the last centuries have decided not to have any contact with Western civilization. From the air, only remains of the cabin built in honor of Franco can be seen. Illegal armed groups burned it down during the pandemic.
This cabin had a very important purpose: to protect the isolated indigenous people of the Colombian Amazon. Indeed, in the depths of the Amazon jungle, very close to Puerto Franco, live the Yuri, an indigenous group that lives in voluntary isolation.
The Río Puré National Park was created for their protection and along with it the most remote cabin in Colombia. Park ranger Luis Rivas, 70, a traditional expert from the Cubeo ethnic group, lived here, charged with keeping illegal miners, drug traffickers and guerrillas away from the isolated indigenous people.
One night, in the midst of the pandemic, Rivas dreamed that he was in danger and asked Parks officials to remove him from the area. When he reached the nearest town, he caught Covid-19 and died. Some time later, officials from the National Parks found out about the destruction of Puerto Franco during a flight over the Puré River. Since the pandemic they have been unable to access protected areas in the Amazon due to threats from illegal groups that now dominate this territory.
The rangers of this national park, like those of nine others in the Colombian Amazon, which covers almost 15 million hectares, had to leave their territory from one day to the next. “We had to send a plane and get everyone out. There was no time, they threatened us,” says a former National Parks official who prefers not to give his name for fear of reprisals from the guerrillas. This former official believes that these threats respond to the implementation by the Government of the Artemisa strategy, a program to stop deforestation in the Amazon.
In 2020 Colombia was the most dangerous country for the second year in a row for environmental defenders. According to the British NGO Global Witness, 65 environmental leaders were murdered.
Although this crisis has been brewing for decades, it has worsened since the signing of the Peace Agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas in 2016. “The organizations that try to protect the Amazon have come into conflict with the interests of these powerful groups. and, as a consequence, they have increasingly become targets of attacks”, explains Juan Carlos Garzón, a researcher at the Ideas for Peace Foundation.
“I am threatened by the guerrillas,” says anthropologist Arturo, 45, who prefers not to give his real name precisely for this reason. He has walked through the Amazon region with a security detail since he reported to the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition in 2020 that the Carolina Ramírez guerrilla group arrived one day at the park cabin where he worked and told them that they had to leave. “They told us that they had declared war on Parks and that they did not want uniformed whites in the protected areas,” he recalls.
The guerrillas stole their gasoline, cameras, computers and all the material they used to study the terrain. “They only left us a small motorized boat to get out,” says Arturo, who decided to leave as soon as he could when he saw his life in danger. Since that time two years ago, whenever he has tried to return, so have the threats. Indigenous officials remained in charge of the parks while Arturo tried to continue leading the projects as best he could from a distance.
However, he recently decided to leave his post: the situation, he says, was becoming more and more frustrating. Arturo was part of a group of park rangers who brought a report to the Truth Commission and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace in which they asked to be recognized as victims of the armed conflict, considering that the guerrillas “took us out under threat and everything was abandoned. I feel very powerless,” he says.
Arturo wonders, what did National Parks do with those who are threatened for trying to take care of a territory that belongs to everyone?, although in truth he knows the answer: nothing. According to official data, 12 park rangers have been killed between 1994 and 2020.
The deputy director of National Parks of Colombia, Carolina Jarro, explains that at the moment they are under very strong pressure from illegal mining, a business that they estimate represents close to three billion Colombian pesos in profits for criminal groups each year. The proceeds, moreover, are used to launder the resources obtained from drug trafficking: “Attempts have been made to control illegal mining in the Puré River because the uncontacted indigenous groups are there,” explains Jarro, citing the burning of the Puerto Franco cabin.
The deputy director also notes that the guerrillas do not stop at threatening the park rangers, saying that they have stolen material from the organization that the rangers need to do their work. “Groups outside the law prefer not to have anyone to see what happens, that’s why they kicked us out,” Jarro says
Although officials are currently unable to be inside the parks full time, they are using remote sensing technology to monitor activity in these protected areas. “We can see when the guerrillas build a house, when they create a road. Thus, we can file criminal complaints about the damage that is being done. We have not abandoned the place, we have to go out for protection. But we are always watching,” Jarro says firmly.
Jarro has worked as an official in a park in the Amazon region for the last 10 years. A trained sociologist, she climbed the ranks of the administration before becoming head of a specific area, the name of which she cannot reveal due to the threat from the guerrillas. Its mission has been to protect a group of indigenous people who emerged from isolation some years ago, only to be enslaved by the miners and rubber tappers who exploited the area’s resources. Now, many of these indigenous people, from the Nukak ethnic group, are highly resistant to contact: “In the beginning, it was the indigenous people themselves who negotiated with the guerrillas so that they would let us enter and work with the communities. There was never a bigger problem.”
However, after the peace process, everything changed. “The guerrillas held me hostage for two days, and after that they told me that I couldn’t set foot in the park again,” says Juana.
The government’s response: Militarize
The only solution Colombia’s national government has come up with has been to militarize these protected areas via a program known as ‘Operation Artemisa’.
In 2020 President Duque said in an interview with the World Economic Forum that “our strategy for fighting deforestation is a combination of carrot and stick. We’re fighting against illegal activities that destroy the tropical jungle. At the same time, we’re building up nature-based solutions. In the past two years, we have been able to reduce the rate of deforestation by 19%.” Duque has since said his government is aiming for a 30% reduction overall.
This month the Minister of Defense, Diego Molano, announced that 10,000 million pesos will be invested in the military bases of La Pedrera and Tarapacá for the control of illegal mining and the fight against drug trafficking.
Esperanza Leal Gómez is Director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Colombia. She says that protecting environmental leaders is the responsibility of the whole Colombian state, which must guarantee conditions for workers in the National Parks so they can “operate…without putting their lives in danger.”
Gómez explains that the park rangers are not only essential for the conservation of the environment, but that they keep those at bay who want to exploit it: “The most latent threat is the dispute over territory between various illegal armed actors and civilians, who are being left unprotected.”
The director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Colombia, Sandra Valenzuela, agrees. “As long as these threats continue, the national parks, their park rangers and uncontacted indigenous people will be in danger. Colombia must find a way to guarantee security and ensure the survival of the lungs of the world.”
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