"We are at war and we cannot cede in the face of these terrorist groups," Ecuadorian president Daniel Noboa told radio station Canela Radio on Wednesday, estimated that some 20,000 crime gang members are active in the country.
Noboa's remarks come in a week in which Ecuador finds itself gripped by gang violence which has seen more than 130 prison guards and other staff taken hostage by inmates and the apparent escape of notorious "Los Choneros" gang leader Adolfo "Fito" Macias.
Explosions have rocked several cities while masked gunmen dramatically stormed onto a television news set live on air on Tuesday, prompting Noboa to further harden a 60-day state of emergency declared on Monday.
"We are making every effort to recover all the hostages," Noboa said, adding that the armed forces have taken over the rescue effort. "We are doing everything possible, and the impossible, to get them safe and sound," he said, having named 22 gangs as terrorist organizations, officially making them legitimate military targets.
Earlier on Wednesday, Ecuadorean police said they had made 70 arrests in response to incidents including the TV station takeover, but said four police officers who authorities say were kidnapped between Monday and Tuesday were still being held.
Streets in the capital Quito and the port city of Guayaquil were quieter than usual on Wednesday, with many businesses closed or working remotely.
Noboa to reveal plans for new high-security prisons
Noboa took power in November pledging to tackle a growing security problem linked to drug-trafficking gangs smuggling cocaine through Ecuador. He told Canela Radio that the best way to safeguard the economy and foreign investment is to improve security and ensure the rule of law.
His government says the latest wave of violence is a response to plans to construct new high-security prisons for gang leaders. Noboa told the radio station a design for two new facilities will be made public on Thursday, but videos continue to circulate on social media purportedly showing prison staff being subjected to extreme violence including shootings and hangings.
The Ecuadorian prisons agency SNAI said 125 of the hostages are prison guards, while a further 14 are administrative staff. It said 11 people were freed on Tuesday.
Ecuadorian lawmakers backing Noboa
Although Noboa is currently acting via presidential decree, Ecuadorian lawmakers on Tuesday nevertheless expressed their support for Noboa's efforts and for the armed forces.
Noboa leads a majority coalition in congress after his party allied itself both with the leftist movement of former President Rafael Correa and a Christian party, but said, referring to the decrees: "I don't need their approval right now for what we are doing but I have asked for their support."
Ecuador to begin deporting foreign prisoners
As part of an effort to reduce prison populations and spending, Noboa has announced that Ecuador will also begin deporting foreign prisoners, with Colombians, Peruvians and Venezuelans making up 90% of jailed foreigners. There are some 1,500 Colombians in prison in Ecuador, according to Noboa.
"We are investing more on those 1,500 people than on school breakfasts for our children," he said.
However, Colombian Justice Minister Nestor Osuna told journalists that Ecuadorean sentences would only be recognized in Colombia if prisoners arrive via formal repatriation, agreed with Colombian authorities. If Colombian prisoners are simply expelled, they would only be jailed if they have charges pending at home.
"If there is an expulsion we'll look at how many people, if they arrive at the border, really need to be detained by Colombian authorities," Osuna said, expressing his "genuine solidarity" with the Ecuadorean people.
Colombia said on Wednesday it would increase its military presence and controls along its nearly 600-kilometer (370-mile) border with Ecuador.
US support for Ecuador
Ecuadorian President Noboa has also received support from the United States after meeting with the US ambassador on Tuesday afternoon, with $200 million worth of American weaponry set to form part of his total $800m security plan.
"We strongly condemn the recent criminal attacks by armed groups in Ecuador against private, public and government institutions," national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a post on social media platform X, formerly Twitter, adding that Washington would cooperate with partners to bring perpetrators to justice.
Separately, White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the United States was monitoring the situation and was "willing to take concrete steps to improve our cooperation" with the Ecuadorian government to deal with the violence and its impact on the population.
Speaking at a press briefing at the White House, Kirby said the Biden administration had not had any specific conversations with Noboa or his government but would be willing to talk about what Ecuador needs, including investigative help.
There is no plan for the US military to send in any troops, he added.
(Source: DW, Reuters)