Ecuador's President Daniel Noboa said Wednesday the country was in “a state of war” against drug cartels who have carried out a wave of kidnappings and deadly attacks in response to a government crackdown.

Hundreds of soldiers patrolled near-deserted streets in Ecuador's capital, where residents were gripped by fear over a surge of violence that has prompted alarm abroad.

The small South American country has been plunged into crisis after years of growing control by transnational cartels who use its ports to ship cocaine to the United States and Europe.

The latest crisis began when authorities on Monday reported the prison escape of one of the country's most powerful narco bosses, Jose Adolfo Macias, known by the alias “Fito.”


Noboa imposed a state of emergency and curfew, and the gangs hit back with a declaration of war, threatening to execute civilians and security forces.

The country has seen prison riots, explosions, and armed attacks in which at least 10 people have been killed.

More than 100 prison guards and administrative staff are being held hostage, the SNAI prisons authority said.

In the port city of Guayaquil, attackers wearing balaclavas and firing shots stormed a state-owned TV station on Tuesday, briefly taking several journalists and staff members hostage in dramatic scenes broadcast live before police arrived.

Local media reported some of the attackers were as young as 16.

“There is fear, you need to be careful, looking here and there, if you take this bus, what will happen,” a 68-year-old woman told AFP in Quito, on condition of anonymity and describing herself as “terrified.”

-‘We cannot give in’ -  

After the assault on the television station Noboa, who has been in office for less than two months, gave orders to “neutralize” the criminal gangs.

“We are in a state of war and we cannot give in to these terrorist groups,” Noboa told radio Canela on Wednesday, pledging to “relentlessly confront” more than 20,000 members of “terrorist organizations.”


“This government is taking the necessary actions that in recent years nobody wanted to take. And that requires balls the size of ostrich eggs,” he said.

The young leader has also met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and stated support for Ukraine's fight against invading Russia.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is “very much alarmed by the deteriorating situation in the country as well as its disruptive impact on the lives of Ecuadorans,” said his spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

Brian Nichols, the top US diplomat for Latin America, said Washington was “extremely concerned” by the violence and kidnappings, and pledged to provide assistance and to “remain in close contact” with Noboa's team.

China's embassy and consulates in Ecuador announced on Wednesday that services to the public were suspended. France and Russia both advised their citizens against travel to Ecuador.

Peru put its border with Ecuador under a state of emergency, sending an additional 500 police and soldiers to secure the frontier.Colombia's army also announced the bolstering of security at the country's border.


- Murder rate quadrupled -

Geography and corruption are among the reasons that the once peaceful country has evolved into a hotspot of transnational organized crime.Ecuador borders the world's two largest cocaine producers, Colombia and Peru.

Guayaquil port, from where most of the drugs are shipped abroad – often in containers of bananas or in legal shipments by front companies – is seen as having weaker controls.

This has drawn in foreign mafia from Colombia, Mexico and Europe, allied with local gangs who fight brutal wars for control of lucrative drug routes.

Much of the violence has been concentrated in prisons, where clashes between inmates have left more than 460 dead, many beheaded or burned alive, since February 2021.

The country's murder rate quadrupled from 2018 to 2022 and a record 220 tons of drugs were seized last year.

Noboa said he is targeting 22 criminal groups, the most powerful of which are Los Choneros, Los Lobos and Tiguerones.Los Chonero's leader, Fito, had been leading the criminal enterprise from his prison cell in Guayaquil for the past 12 years until his escape.

On Tuesday, officials said another narco boss – Los Lobos leader Fabricio Colon Pico – also escaped following his arrest last Friday for alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Ecuador's attorney general.

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