Quito – Police in violence-plagued Ecuador arrested 68 people Sunday who had attempted to take over a hospital in the country’s southwest in the midst of a “war” between drug gangs and the security forces.
The arrests came as Quito agreed with neighboring Andean nations Peru, Colombia and Bolivia to launch a new security network, with the deal reached at an emergency meeting held as the region watches bloodshed spiral in once-peaceful Ecuador.
“We neutralized alleged terrorists who were trying to take over the facilities of a hospital in Yaguachi, Guayas,” police announced on social media.
Those detained were believed to be trying to rescue a colleague who was admitted to the hospital with injuries hours earlier, it added.
Firearms and drugs were seized.
Police said they also raided a “rehabilitation center” that housed a gang command center and brothel, and where several alleged gang members were hiding.
Ecuadoran authorities have recently closed hundreds of such centers, essentially gang-run clandestine hospitals that officials say do not have proper facilities for patient care.
Once considered a bastion of peace in Latin America, Ecuador has been plunged into crisis after years of expansion by transnational cartels that use its ports to ship drugs to the United States and Europe.
After a recent spate of violence sparked by the prison escape of Adolfo Macias, a drug kingpin known as “Fito,” President Daniel Noboa imposed a state of emergency and declared the country in a “war” against gangs.
Drug cartels reacted swiftly, threatening to execute civilians and security forces and taking hostage dozens of police and prison officials, since released.
There are some 20 criminal groups in the country of 17 million people, with membership thought to exceed 20,000.
New security network launched
The violence prompted ministers of Andean countries to create a new “Andean security network” against organized crime, according to a signed official declaration at an emergency meeting in Lima on Sunday.
The network will guarantee “a 24/7 service to provide and receive information, and/or request information from other countries… on the activity of criminal groups that have, or may have, transnational operations,” said the declaration from the Andean Community, comprised of members Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Bolivia.
Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Gabriela Sommerfeld hailed the agreement as a “new chapter.”
“Fear paralyzes countries,” she stressed. “We have seen that fear has paralyzed Ecuador, paralyzed investment, increased unemployment and migration.”
Peru and Colombia had already tightened border controls, fearing an influx of criminals fleeing the crackdown in Ecuador.
The United States also announced Sunday that a delegation would visit Ecuador to “consider options to accelerate bilateral security cooperation and discuss collaborative approaches to confront the threats posed by transnational criminal organizations.”
Highlighting the extent of the drug trade in the region, authorities in both Colombia and Ecuador announced over the weekend that they had intercepted two semi-submersible vessels loaded with tons of drugs in their respective Pacific waters.
Three people on each vessel were arrested.
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