Streets empty as Ecuador reels from violence

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Watch: Armed men interrupt live broadcast and threaten presenter (contains distressing scenes)

By James Gregory & Will Grant
BBC News in London and Guayaquil

Soldiers are on the streets in several cities in Ecuador as the country reels from an unprecedented day of violence.

Masked gunmen stormed a public TV studio during a live broadcast in the city of Guayaquil and bombs were detonated across Ecuador on Tuesday.

More than 130 prison staff are being held hostage by inmates in five jails.

A 60-day state of emergency began on Monday after a notorious gangster vanished from his prison cell.

It is unclear whether the attack on the TV studio in Ecuador’s largest city was related to the disappearance of the boss of the Choneros gang, Adolfo MacĂ­as Villamar, or Fito, as he is better known.

President Daniel Noboa declared the state of emergency in response to a wave of recent jail riots and escapes from prisons and other acts of violence blamed by authorities on criminal gangs.

He ordered that criminal gangs be “neutralised” and said that an “internal armed conflict” existed within the country.

The government says the violence is a reaction to President Noboa’s plan to build a new high security prison for gang leaders.

The president said on Wednesday that Ecuador would begin to deport foreign prisoners, especially Colombians, to reduce the number of inmates.

Meanwhile, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the US “strongly condemned” the recent attacks.

Hours after the most brazen of the attacks, Guayaquil is like a city waking up from a strange nightmare.

Despite the deteriorating security situation over recent years, few could have expected to see the anchor of state television channel TC with a gun pointed at his head, live on air.

Police have made 70 arrests since Monday, including in response to the storming of the TV station.

The ripple effect of that brazen attack has been to send people for cover, even a day later. The streets are largely empty for a weekday.

Hundreds of soldiers, including in tanks, are patrolling the streets of Guayaquil and the capital, Quito.

Across the country, schools have remained closed, with lessons taking place online.

China, a major investor in Ecuador, also announced it was temporarily shutting its embassy and consulates.

Soldiers patrol the streets of Guayaquil

Inside the businesses which remain open in Guayaquil, jumpy private security guards are keeping the doors closed, only allowing people in with caution.

Eduardo, who works for an international clothing firm, said he was in the street buying coffee at the moment the chaos started to unfold and by the time he returned to the office, his colleagues had already started to pack up and leave.

“Today, everyone is working from home,” he said.

Some 125 prison guards and 14 administrative staff are being held hostage across Ecuador, the SNAI prisons agency says.

Four police officers, who authorities say were kidnapped by criminals between Monday and Tuesday, are also being held. Three other officers were freed late on Tuesday.

Police say violence is ongoing in Guayaquil. Eight people were killed and three injured in attacks linked to criminal gangs in the city on Tuesday while two police officers were killed by “armed criminals” in the nearby town of Nobol, police said.

Police say they are in the process of identifying three bodies which were found in a burned-out car in the south of the city overnight.

This is an unprecedented situation for the people of Guayaquil – they have seen political protests and other violent incidents over the years but nothing on the scale of the sheer panic which gripped the city on Tuesday.

Students ran in fear as gunmen entered their university corridors and bombs were detonated around the country, raising fears that the attacks were co-ordinated.

Those who must venture out, for work or to visit family, are doing so with great trepidation. It has been an exhausting, upsetting 24 hours in Ecuador’s main port.

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