Ecuador to build mega-jails inspired by El Salvador’s hardline leader

Daniel Noboa speaking during a press conference about security in Samborondon, Ecuador on December 15, 2023
Mr Noboa, right, was sworn in as Ecuador's new president in November - JONATHAN MIRANDA/AFP

Ecuador will build two new maximum security prisons styled on a mega-jail capable of housing 12,000 inmates created by El Salvador’s authoritarian leader.

The move comes as part of a push from Daniel Noboa, the newly elected president, to curtail a surge in drug trafficking and gang-related violence.

He said on Thursday that the new prisons would be exactly the same as a facility set up by Nayib Bukele, his counterpart in El Salvador, who has led a controversial campaign targeting gangs.

“The prisons will allow for the division, proper isolation of people,” Mr Noboa said.

“For all the Bukele lovers, it is an identical prison,” the 36-year-old added.

The two new jails will be built in the Amazon province of Pastaza, and in Santa Elena on the Pacific coast, with construction starting on Jan 11.

Mr Noboa, who took office in November, said the sites had been chosen as they were far away from the most violence-ridden parts of the country, such as the port city of Guayaquil, where drug-related gang violence has led to brutal prison massacres.

The president has said his plan is to separate the most dangerous prisoners in a bid to stop the gang wars behind bars that have led to some 460 deaths since 2021.

Mr Noboa’s announcement came a day after he outlined a proposed referendum on tougher measures against organised crime.

Long a peaceful haven between Colombia and Peru, Latin America’s top cocaine exporters, Ecuador has seen violence explode in recent years as enemy gangs with links to Mexican and Colombian cartels vie for control.

The murder rate quadrupled between 2018 and 2022, with last year the most violent on record: a total of 7,500 homicides in a country of about 18 million people.

The mega-jail in El Salvador constructed under Mr Bukele’s watch is capable of housing more than 12,000 prisoners.

His government frequently shares images of inmates packed into the jail, and has faced criticism from rights groups over its treatment of prisoners.

Critics of Mr Bukele, who is seeking re-election this year, argue his strong-arm tactics are misguided and say El Salvador cannot arrest and jail its way out of its security problems.

Ecuador currently has some 30,000 inmates, according to a 2022 penitentiary census.

Mr Noboa has said that to reduce the number of prisoners, he plans to deport some 1,500 foreigners, mainly from Colombia, Peru and Venezuela.