Ecuador’s big cell.

Alright, I give in. Things could be worse. Here’s me getting all gloomy about the state of our nation but it doesn’t take a lot of effort to find somewhere in the world that sounds a hell of a lot further down from purgatory, from whichever angle you come at it. I mean, what if, through no fault of your own and thanks to a sequence of unfortunate events you had no control over happened to find yourself locked up in an Ecuadorian jail? Maybe some over-zealous member of the public had wrongly identified you as the kind of person who might murder innocent kids for a living or perhaps, thanks to the huge spiderweb tattoo that covers most of your face had assumed you were connected to a drug cartel in a land far, far away. It doesn’t really matter because all of a sudden you find yourself occupying a cell in the Litoral Penitentiary in the city of Guayaquil, the kind of prison that makes a day at Wormwood Scrubs look like a daisy chain workshop in a Cath Kidston showroom.

If I rounded it up to a whole number I reckon I would last as many as one minutes in an Ecuadorian jail; especially one like the Litoral Penitentiary, which is stuffed full of rival gang members and even on a good day probably bubbles away with tension and casual, almost comic book violence. Most, if not all, of these gangs are linked in some form or other to the Mexican drug cartels that everyone knows so much about these days: mules, smugglers, hitmen, enforcers, guinea pigs, purveyors of unnecessary amputation, acid bath enthusiasts – the kind of jobs you don’t often discuss with the careers advisor in Year 12. Jails like these are not meant for the feint hearted. In fact jails like this aren’t really meant for anything – the world would without doubt be a better place if every inmate magically vanished overnight, never to be seen again. I expect that is a sentiment which most Ecuadorian politicians might agree with, but someone with clout once said that life is sacred and every individual is always worth saving. Idiot.

So, on Tuesday the day to day casual violence erupted into something much more horrifying and as of this morning the death toll has cantered past 116 and comfortably broken Ecuador’s already worrying record for the worst prison violence it has ever experienced. Give them a medal. Imagine if 116 people died in a prison gang fight in this country. BBC News 24 would explode. Instead, because it has happened in a country that holds little interest for us besides a steady supply of bananas, the reporting at this end is decidedly light hearted. It is with almost cavalier nonchalance that we are told prisoners used hand grenades and that 400 police offers were needed to gain control (that’s the word ‘control’ being used in the absolute loosest sense imaginable). At least five inmates were decapitated (which is fine unless you were sixth or seventh, in which case the lack of media recognition would be enough to put one out) while others had it easy and were merely shot dead. And in one aside it is mentioned that the Litoral is “considered one of the most dangerous prisons in the country”, which makes you wonder what grim layer of fire and brimstone you’d end up in if you were even more dangerous than a decapitating, hand grenade throwing, drug cartel associate.

According to the police commander overseeing this bloodbath – Fausto Buenano (in English: Fast Benny) – prisoners had crawled through a hole from one wing to another and started attacking inmates that didn’t have quite the same sequence of ridiculous tattoos slapped across their foreheads, and I expect the Ecuadorian authorities will be asking the prison architect why they felt the need to incorporate holes in the wall, a feature that tends to be frowned upon by most prison security experts. Ecuador’s prison service director – Bolivar Garzon – summed up the whole situation with a careless sprinkle of understatement by describing it as “terrible”. It is of course far beyond terrible, and made extra tragic because the whole thing appears to have been carried out on the orders of a Mexican cartel who genuinely could not care less about a single Ecuadorian life. Or any other life, for that matter.

If you can draw any positives from it at all, Ecuador’s president announced recently that the country’s prison system was 30% over capacity, so at least that figure will have been lowered ever so slightly, and it doesn’t look like the trouble is going away in a hurry so a big hand clap to the Ecuadorian Prison System Capacity Control And Analysis Department. Other than that it serves to shine a spotlight on a country that will never have the opportunities, wealth and infrastructure we take for granted (though I concede that in our case it’s hard to take something for granted if it’s useless in the first place). One would hope that Ecuador will manage to rein in their prison problems but we all know that it will never happen, just as Mexico will never win their war on drugs. These are problems that run so deep they will never be dug out – in fact they’ll continue to grow at a rate that will always exceed (even if only marginally) the success with which they are tackled. Subsequently, next time I’m in a petrol queue (which will be very soon), wondering how Britain went galloping to the dogs I’ll try to offset that by being grateful I don’t live in a prison in Ecuador. Britain in a slump vs being beheaded by a tattooed lunatic who’s just crawled through a hole in the wall – your call.

G B Hewitt. 30.09.2021

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