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Armed men are arrested after storming an Ecuador TV studio during a live broadcast

Soldiers patrol the perimeter of Inca prison during a state of emergency in Quito, Ecuador, on Tuesday in the wake of the apparent escape of a powerful gang leader from prison.
Dolores Ochoa
/
AP
Soldiers patrol the perimeter of Inca prison during a state of emergency in Quito, Ecuador, on Tuesday in the wake of the apparent escape of a powerful gang leader from prison.

Updated January 9, 2024 at 7:09 PM ET

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador — Masked men broke onto the set of a public television channel in Ecuador waving guns and explosives during a live broadcast on Tuesday, and the president issued a decree declaring that the country had entered an "internal armed conflict."

The men armed with pistols and what looked like sticks of dynamite entered the set of the TC Television network in the port city of Guayaquil during a news program that was airing live in thousands of homes across the nation and shouted that they had bombs. Noises similar to gunshots could be heard in the background. It was not immediately clear if any station personnel were injured.

Authorities have not said who was behind the television station occupation, or a series of other attacks that have shaken the South American country recently, but they follow the apparent escapes from prison of two of Ecuador's most powerful drug gang leaders.

Alina Manrique, the head of news for TC Television, said she was in the control room, across from the studio, when the masked men burst into the building. One of them pointed a gun at her head and told her to get on the floor, Manrique said.

The incident was aired live, although the station's signal was cut off after about 15 minutes. Manrique said some of the assailants ran from the studio and tried to hide when they realized they were surrounded by police.

"I am still in shock" Manrique told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "Everything has collapsed .... All I know is that its time to leave this country and go very far away."

Ecuador has been rocked by a series of attacks, including the abductions of several police officers, in the wake of a powerful gang leader's apparent weekend escape from prison. President Daniel Noboa on Monday declared a national state of emergency, a measure that lets authorities suspend people's rights and mobilize the military in places like prisons.

Shortly after the gunmen stormed the TV station, Noboa issued another decree designating 20 drug trafficking gangs operating in the country as terrorist groups and authorizing Ecuador's military to "neutralize" these groups within the bounds of international humanitarian law. It also said the country had entered an internal armed conflict.

AG's office to charge those arrested with terrorism

Ecuador's national police chief later announced that authorities had arrested all the masked intruders. Police commander César Zapata told the TV channel Teleamazonas that officers seized the guns and explosives the gunmen had with them. He said 13 people were arrested.

Ecuador's attorney general's office said those arrested will be charged with terrorism. It tweeted that it will present the charges in coming hours, and that prosecutors are working at the scene of the attack at the TC Television network to get more evidence.

Ecuadorian law establishes a penalty of up to 13 years in prison for somebody convicted of terrorism.

The government has not said how many attacks have taken place since authorities announced that Los Choneros gang leader Adolfo Macías, alias "Fito," was discovered missing from his cell in a low security prison Sunday. He was scheduled to be transferred to a maximum security facility that day.

On Tuesday, Ecuadorean officials announced that another gang leader, Fabricio Colon Pico of the Los Lobos group, had escaped from a prison in the town of Riobamba. Colon Pico was captured on Friday as part of a kidnapping investigation and has also been accused of trying to murder one of the nation's lead prosecutors.

Other attacks have included an explosion near the house of the president of the National Justice Court and the Monday night kidnappings of four police officers, or whether they think the actions were coordinated.

Police said one officer was abducted in the capital, Quito, and three in Quevedo city.

Los Choneros is one of the Ecuadorian gangs that authorities consider responsible for a spike in violence, much of tied to drug trafficking, that reached a new level last year with theassassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio. The gang has links with Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, according to authorities.

The whereabouts of Macías are unknown. Prosecutors opened an investigation and charged two guards in connection with his alleged escape, but neither the police, the corrections system, nor the federal government confirmed whether the prisoner fled the facility or might be hiding in it.

In February 2013, he escaped from a maximum security facility but was recaptured weeks later.

Attacks started after Noboa announces state of emergency

Noboa said in a message on Instagram that he wouldn't stop until he "brings back peace to all Ecuadorians," and that his government had decided to confront crime. The wave of attacks began a few hours after Noboa's announcement.

States of emergency were widely used by Noboa's predecessor, Guillermo Lasso, as a way to confront the wave of violence that has affected the country.

Macías, who was convicted of drug trafficking, murder and organized crime, was serving a 34-year sentence in La Regional prison in the port of Guayaquil.

Los Choneros and other similar groups linked to Mexican and Colombian cartels are fighting over drug trafficking routes and control of territory, including from within detention facilities, where at least 400 inmates have died since 2021, according to authorities.

Experts and authorities have acknowledged that gang members practically rule from inside the prisons, and Macías is believed to have kept controlling his group from within the detention facility.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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