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Troops deployed in Ecuador after spate of organized crime attacks

#Troops #deployed #Ecuador #spate #organized #crime #attacks

Police and soldiers on Wednesday patrolled the terror-stricken streets of two Ecuadoran cities after a spate of attacks blamed on organized crime groups waging a deadly drug war.  

Following a wave of strikes Tuesday in which five police officers were killed and a civilian wounded at a clinic, a state of emergency and nightly curfew has taken effect in the western provinces of Guayas and Esmeraldas.  

The civilian died Wednesday of gunshot injuries to the head, health officials said, bringing the death toll from the attacks to six.   

Two police officials were also injured.  

Groups armed with guns and explosives, including car bombs, hit more than 18 targets Tuesday in the cities of Guayaquil and Duran in the Guayas province and in Esmeraldas further north.

Targets included police and gas installations, a clinic and a bus terminal.  

President Guillermo Lasso declared a 45-day state of emergency in response, with a nightly 9pm-to-5am curfew for the two provinces and special powers to limit freedom of movement and assembly.  

Classes in some areas were suspended.  

On Wednesday, the streets of Guayaquil — the scene of much of the street and prison violence to have hit Ecuador since last year — were unusually quiet. And nervous.  

Jorge Arguello, the 36-year-old head of a publishing company, told AFP there was “fear on the streets” and he himself was afraid to leave home after spotting motorcycles — associated with gangs and hitmen — doing the rounds.  

Anti-crime operations in the city of 2.8 million people, capital of the Guayas province, yielded 28 arrests on Wednesday morning, according to Interior Minister Juan Zapata.

Arms, ammunition and explosives were seized.

“It is scary to go out,” said Guayaquil resident Elizabeth, 37, who did not want to give her full name for fear of reprisal.  

In the morning, she and other neighbors had to call 911 to report what they thought was a car bomb in the street outside their homes.

“They came right away, they deactivated it and nothing bad happened. But on the street it smelled like gunpowder,” Elizabeth recalled.  

– ‘Open war’ –

Ecuador — once a relatively peaceful neighbor of major cocaine producers Colombia and Peru — has seen a wave of violent crime that authorities blame on turf battles between drug gangs believed to have ties to Mexican cartels.  

Civilians have increasingly been caught up in the bloodshed that has claimed more than 60 police lives since last year.  

Authorities said Tuesday’s attacks were in response to a mass transfer of inmates from the gang-controlled Guayas 1 prison in Guayaquil.  

Angered by the move, inmates at a prison in Esmeraldas took eight guards hostage. They were all later freed.  

A day earlier, two headless bodies were found hanging from a pedestrian bridge in Esmeraldas.  

Ecuador has gone from being a drug transit route in recent years to an important distribution center in its own right.

The United States and Europe are the main destinations of drugs from Latin America.

The murder rate in Ecuador nearly doubled in 2021 to 14 per 100,000 inhabitants, and reached 18 per 100,000 between January and October this year, according to official data.

Hundreds of inmates have died since February last year — many beheaded or burned — as the gang war is waged also behind bars — especially at Guayas 1.  

“These acts of sabotage and terrorism are… a declaration of open war,” Lasso said of Tuesday’s attacks. 

In 2021, law enforcement seized a record 210 tons of drugs, mostly cocaine. So far this year’s seizures total 160 tons.  

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