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News / Nation & World

Schools and shops are closed in Ecuador’s biggest cities after a gang attack is broadcast on live TV

Published: January 10, 2024, 3:48pm

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador — Schools and stores sat shuttered, many people stayed home and soldiers roamed the streets of Ecuador’s biggest cities Wednesday, the day after armed gang members who invaded a television station during a live broadcast aroused new levels of fear in a nation experiencing a wave of criminal violence.

Much of Ecuador simmered with tension following Tuesday’s attack at public channel TC Television in Guayaquil, a coastal city that is considered the country’s most violent. Military personnel and tanks guarded hospitals, public transit and newsrooms there and in the capital city, Quito.

The hooded intruders who stormed TC Television’s offices and studio with guns and explosives unleashed at least 15 minutes of on-air threats while menacing journalists and other terrified employees. No one was killed, and police quickly moved in and arrested 13 people.

Even in a country where a presidential candidate was assassinated last year, however, the brazen daytime show of force broadcast into Ecuadorians’ homes and workplaces was unprecedented. The motive for targeting the station remained unclear, but the attack brought an immediate response from the government.

President Daniel Noboa, who came into power in November with a promise to bring peace to the South American country, issued a decree saying the nation had entered an “internal armed conflict” with 20 drug-trafficking gangs the government designated as terrorist groups.

The decree authorized Ecuador’s military to “neutralize” the gangs within the bounds of international humanitarian law. The president’s pronouncement prompted some analysts to describe the televised attack as a watershed moment for Ecuador.

“We are fighting for national peace. We are fighting against terrorist groups that are more than 20,000 people,” Noboa said in a interview with a local radio station Wednesday.

Police said they had arrested at least 70 people as of Wednesday morning for alleged terrorist acts, including the 13 who were apprehended at the TV station. TC Television’s mid-afternoon newscast was underway when the armed group burst in.

First, a man with a pistol appeared in the middle of the public TV station’s live transmission, followed by a second man with a shotgun, then a third and more. With the show’s “After the News” title behind them, station employees were brought onto the set and ordered to lie down.

“We are on air, so you know that you cannot play with the mafia,” one of the assailants is heard saying.

Masked men could be seen aiming guns at news staff. Someone said: “Don’t shoot!” Screams could be heard followed by the sound of gunshots. After about 15 minutes the transmission was cut.

Alina Manrique, the head of news for TC Television, was ordered to get on the floor. With a gun aimed at her head, “I thought about my entire life, about my two children,” she told The Associated Press after the ordeal had ended.

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“I am still in shock,” Manrique said. “Everything has collapsed. … All I know is that it’s time to leave this country and go very far away.”

The day before the events at TC Television, the president had imposed a national state of emergency, a move that allows authorities to suspend people’s rights and mobilize the military in places like prisons. Ecuador’s government reported Wednesday that 125 prison guards and 14 administrative workers have been held hostage since Monday inside prisons in five provinces.

Authorities were working to ensure the hostages “get out safe and sound without giving in to any single criminal,” Vice Minister of Government Fernando Torres said.

Noboa’s emergency declaration followed the apparent escape from prison of Llos Choneros gang leader Adolfo Macías on Sunday. Authorities say Los Choneros, one of the Ecuadorian gangs considered responsible for a spike in car bombings, kidnappings and slayings, has links with Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.

The whereabouts of Macías, who is known by the alias “Fito,” were unknown. The government has said at least 30 attacks have taken place since he was discovered missing from his cell in a low-security prison where he was serving a 36-year sentence for drug trafficking, murder and organized crime. He was scheduled to be transferred to a maximum security facility that day.

The head of the Armed Forces Joint Command told journalists Tuesday that the recent attacks were the gangs’ reactions to the government’s moves against them.

“They have unleashed a wave of violence to frighten the population,” Adm. Jaime Vela said.

The governments of the United States, Peru, Argentina, Israel, Canada, Colombia and Russia have offered to help Ecuador’s government crack down on the gangs, Noboa said. The president added he anticipated an aid package from the U.S. in the coming days.

Will Freeman, a political analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that while gangs in Ecuador previously assassinated presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio and set off car bombs in front of government buildings, Tuesday’s events marked “a turning point.”

“Depending on how the government responds, it will set the precedent for these kinds of incidents to continue, or it will use this as a catalyst and make some very necessary structural reforms so that the state can start to win its war against crime,” Freeman said.

The National Police of Ecuador reported on X, formerly Twitter, Wednesday that it had secured the release of three officers who were abducted earlier in the week, recaptured 17 escaped prisoners, and seized explosives, cartridges, weapons and vehicles during raids throughout the country.

Ecuadorian officials said Tuesday that another gang leader, Fabricio Colón Pico of the Los Lobos group, had escaped from a prison in the town of Riobamba. Colón Pico was captured Friday as part of a kidnapping investigation and has also been accused of trying to kill one of the nation’s lead prosecutors.

Located on South America’s Pacific coast between Peru and Colombia, the world’s largest cocaine producers, Ecuador has become a key transit point for the drug in recent years. Much of the violence suffered by the country comes as drug gangs fight each other and the government for control of ports and smuggling routes.