A 60-day state of emergency has begun in Ecuador after a convicted gang leader vanished from his prison cell.
Adolfo Macías Villamar, better known as “Fito”, is the leader of Los Choneros, a powerful gang which is thought to have been behind some of the deadly prison riots in recent months.
He was being held in the maximum security wing of a jail in Guayaquil.
The emergency measures include the suspension of the right of assembly and a nightly curfew.
They were announced in a decree issued by President Daniel Noboa, who took office less than two months ago as the second-youngest holder of the post in Ecuadorean history.
He won the election after a campaign overshadowed by unprecedented levels of violence, including the assassination of another candidate, Fernando Villavicencio.
President Noboa said the emergency would allow the military and police to take control of the country’s prisons at a national level. Los Choneros control much of the compound at La Regional prison, where Fito was being held.
“These narco-terrorist groups intend to intimidate us and they think we will give in to their demands,” the president said.
But he added: “We will not negotiate with terrorists and we will not rest until we have restored peace.”
Fito is a notorious criminal suspected of having played a role in last year’s killing of Villavicencio, whom he had sent death threats.
Police said they had noticed his absence early on Sunday and could not find him anywhere in the prison wing.
He often defies the authorities, most recently by releasing a “narcocorrido”, a slick music video glorifying his criminal exploits, which was partly recorded inside the jail.
The video shows the Mariachi Bravo duo singing along with Fito’s daughter, known as Queen Michelle, and praising the “man of honour” they say the criminal is.
“I take my hat off to you, Fito, my dad,” his daughter croons, claiming that “through his veins good blood flows”.
The video shows Fito caressing a fighting cockerel and freely chatting to fellow inmates.
The fact that the video could be recorded behind bars suggests that the ban on electronic devices inside the jail had been breached.
It is still not clear if Fito managed to leave the prison compound in the port city or if he may be hiding somewhere inside.
A police commander said he could “neither confirm nor deny” an escape, nor could he say for how long the convict had been missing.
He said hundreds of officers were searching the prison.
La Regional jail is located in a large prison compound which houses a total of five penitentiaries and more than 12,000 inmates. Fito has spent much of his past 12 years behind bars there.
In August, he was briefly transferred to La Roca, a smaller jail in the same compound, which is considered safer because of the lower number of inmates. It took thousands of soldiers to move him.
When Fito was transferred, graffiti appeared in the football field of his old jail demanding he be returned
But the convict’s lawyer appealed against the decision to transfer him and won, and Fito was moved back to La Regional after just a month.
Fito has escaped from the prison compound before. In 2013, he and 17 other inmates broke out of La Roca and fled in boats on the River Daule, which borders the compound.
The fugitive was captured along with his brother, a fellow member of Los Choneros, four months later at their mother’s home in the city of Manta.
Fito has been in prison ever since. After the killing in December 2020 of Jorge Luis Zambrano, he took over the leadership of Los Choneros.
The gang, which is named after its power base in the town of Chone, mainly engages in drug trafficking and extortion and has forged links with Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel.