A sense of dread took hold in Ecuador on Wednesday, with the streets empty, schools closed and many people afraid to leave their homes after the disappearance of two gang leaders set off prison riots, police kidnappings and the on-air storming of a TV station.
Even for a country accustomed to violence, the events that have rocked Ecuador this week were shocking.
“I feel like the world I knew before is gone,” said María Ortega, a schoolteacher in Guayaquil, a sprawling coastal city. “You can know how things start, but not how they’ll end.”
It began with violence erupting in prisons across the South American country as soldiers surged into a penal compound in Guayaquil, after the disappearance of a powerful gang leader, Adolfo Macías, from his cell over the weekend. Inmates at various prisons took prison guards captive, and dozens of detainees escaped, including another prominent gang leader.
The violence soon spilled over into cities and towns, where drug gangs run rampant. Explosions were reported, police officers were kidnapped, hospitals were seized and cars set on fire. People scrambled to get home, jumping on the back of trucks as bus service stopped in Guayaquil, and the police and armed people exchanged gunfire, including near a school.
By the end of a bloody day, at least 11 people had died throughout the country, according to the authorities, including a well-known musician, Diego Gallardo, 31, who was in his car on the way to pick up his son from school in Guayaquil when he was hit by a stray bullet.
The unrest peaked on Tuesday afternoon, when armed men briefly took over TC Televisión in Guayaquil during a live broadcast, taking anchors and staff hostage and demanding to deliver a message to the government not to interfere “with the mafias.”
Not long after, the country’s president, Daniel Noboa, declared an “internal armed conflict” and directed the military to “neutralize” the country’s two dozen gangs, which the government labeled “terrorist organizations.”
Mr. Noboa framed the declaration as a watershed moment.
“We are fighting for the peace of the nation,” the president said on Wednesday in a radio speech, “fighting also against terrorist groups that today are made up of 20,000 people. They want me to call them groups of organized crime because it is easier. When they are terrorists, and when we live in a state of conflict, of war, other laws apply.”
In Ecuador, the presidential declaration was widely seen as a turning point in the crisis that has subsumed the once-peaceful nation over the past two years, as the country of nearly 18 million has been dominated by an increasingly powerful narco-trafficking industry.
International drug cartels from as far as Albania have joined forces with local prison and street gangs, unleashing a wave of violence unlike anything in the country’s recent history. Homicide rates have soared to record levels.
Mr. Noboa signaled the start of a new fight to push back against the gangs and to bring peace back to Ecuador.
“We are not going to let society die slowly,” he said.
The commander of Ecuador’s armed forces, Jaime Vela Erazo, said criminal groups, which he called terrorists, had become military targets. He made clear the government’s intention to apply a heavy hand.
“We will not back down or negotiate,’’ he said in a statement. “Good, justice and order cannot ask for permission or bow their heads to terrorists.”
Later on Wednesday, Mr. Vela announced that since the armed conflict was declared, police and armed forces had killed five people with links to gangs and had arrested 329.
Around the country, many were divided over what the government’s move might mean, with some expressing support and calling it a much-needed step to crack down on gang violence, and others viewing it as a slippery slope to a militarized state that targets innocent civilians.
“The declaration of internal conflict worries me enormously,” said Katherine Casanova, a 28-year-old social worker who said her family had recently been attacked by armed men near Guayaquil. “Although in the midst of pain I want to cling to something that makes me feel a modicum of security, I fear the repercussions of declaring an internal conflict, of militarizing. It will probably be my people who, once more, are among the dead.”
Mr. Noboa’s declaration came on the heels of a proposed referendum that would lengthen sentences for crimes like murder and arms trafficking, target money launderers and create a special court system to protect judges.
Many have compared Mr. Noboa’s proposed referendum and enhanced security moves to President Nayib Bukele’s autocratic campaign in El Salvador against drug gangs — a comparison Mr. Noboa has made himself.
The government’s measures are “much more aggressive” than previous steps to quell gang violence, said Fernando Carrión of the Latin American Faculty for Social Sciences, a regional research and analysis group, who studies violence and drug trafficking.
“The population looks favorably on this decision,” he said, but added that tackling such large and entrenched gangs would be challenging.
Drawing the military into the conflict, experts said, could lead to prolonged violence and bloodshed, as it did in Colombia, where Plan Colombia, a U.S.-backed policy that took hold some 20 years ago, has been criticized for treating much of the population as internal enemies.
“The situation could go on, and get worse, a situation that has already reached the worst point in its history,” said Glaeldys González, a fellow at the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit think tank, who focuses on Ecuador.
“What I see as more worrisome,’’ she added, “is the president’s declaration of an internal armed conflict — the question is how that is going to translate into practice.’’
“Who will be classified as a ‘terrorist’ or a member of a ‘terrorist group’?’’ Ms. González said. “It’s an open question, and the armed forces seem to have discretion over who are the targets.”
On Wednesday, even as the streets grew mostly quiet, the country’s prisons had not yet been secured, with dozens of guards and staff still held hostage, according to the prison authorities.
As gangs have proliferated, the country’s crumbling prisons have served as their headquarters and recruiting centers. About one-fourth of the country’s 36 prisons are believed to be controlled by gangs.
Mr. Macías, the leader of a group called Los Choneros, disappeared on Sunday from the Guayaquil prison that his gang mostly controls. Fabricio Colón Pico, the leader of another gang, Los Lobos, went missing early Tuesday from a prison in the central city of Riobamba. Both men were still at large on Wednesday.
On the streets, people were divided over the government’s vow to confront the gangs and retake control of prisons that have been incubators of so much of the country’s upheaval.
“I’m scared, I’m anxious,” said María José Chancay, a music producer in Guayaquil, whose friend, Mr. Gallardo, died while caught in crossfire on Tuesday. “I feel that the measures taken by the authorities are not going to do any good and are going to bring more violence.’’
But others said the government needed to take a firm hand if the country was going to stop the bloodshed. Videos posted on Wednesday and shared on social media showed shoppers in a grocery store in Guayaquil clapping and cheering as a procession of soldiers entered.
“I have mixed feelings” about the security measures said Ms. Ortega, the schoolteacher. “I must admit that even though it is terrifying, I am relieved. And I feel horrible for thinking and feeling that.”
José María León Cabrera contributed reporting from Quito, Ecuador, and Thalíe Ponce from Guayaquil, Ecuador.