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Ecuador’s prisoners are going hungry

The company that fed 11,000 inmates has stopped providing services over a $30-million debt with the government, while accusations of torture in jails are on the increase

Personas privadas de libertad en Ecuador
Inmates do exercises at the Cotopaxi Social Rehabilitation Center, on February 22.Karen Toro

Prisoners in Ecuador are going hungry. The company that was contracted to feed 11,000 inmates in 20 penitentiaries has abandoned the prison kitchens due to an outstanding debt of $30 million owed by the government of President Daniel Noboa. This amount also includes school meals for 1.5 million children. The first alert that prisoners were not receiving food came on April 26. The Service for the Attention of Persons Deprived of Liberty (SNAI) denied through a bulletin on social networks that supply had been suspended and assured that they had “guaranteed the service normally.” After the issuance of that statement, SNAI remained silent. A week later, Noboa wrote on the social network X, without providing further details: “We will never favor suppliers of the State that have links with organized crime.” The crisis, however, has not been addressed and the families of prisoners are crowded at the door of the notorious Litoral prison in Guayaquil for fear that their loved ones will die of starvation.

The situation of inmates has been exacerbated by the continuous denunciations of mistreatment that human rights organizations have been documenting since Noboa decreed a state of “internal armed conflict” in January and authorized the military to enter the prisons. Last Friday, carried white balloons with messages such as “No to mistreatment” and giant photographs of the wounded and bloodied bodies of the prisoners. Araceli’s relative is held in the Latacunga prison where the story is the same: “There is no food, no medicine, they are mistreating them. I don’t agree with the military doing this, they are already paying for their crimes. The president is doing wrong,” she says.

In some prisons, SNAI has allowed family members to deliver food to the prisoners. To do so, they have organized collections of donations from relatives, neighbors, and friends. “We don’t have enough money and we have to rely on people,” says Araceli. The judge ruled in favor of the prisoners and ordered that within 15 days, the Ministry of Finance deliver the funds to SNAI so that it can guarantee food for inmates. “The SNAI will have no excuse to solve the problem and will have to manage food for the prisoners with donations and public and private institutions”, says Fernando Bastias of the Permanent Committee of Human Rights of Guayaquil (CDH).

Relatives of Ecuadorian prisoners protest in front of the North Judicial Complex, in Quito.
Relatives of Ecuadorian prisoners protest in front of the North Judicial Complex, in Quito.KAREN TORO

This organization has received over 100 complaints of torture and cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment as of four months ago, when the state of emergency came into force. Most of the accusations come from the Litoral prison. All of them concur that the prisoners are incommunicado from their families and many have required medical attention as a result of wounds caused by beatings, or pre-existing illnesses. One of the methods of torture identified by the CDH is also through food. “The Armed Forces withhold food, let it rot, and then give it to the detainees,” says Bastias. The complaints also detail that “the military give them the food and force them to eat in a minute while they pour gas on them,” he adds.

The government assures that it sent a notitia criminis to the Attorney General’s Office for a “secret” report from the Strategic Intelligence Center, in which alleged illicit acts of a criminal nature are revealed and in which the company Lafattoria S.A., the food supplier for the 20 prisons, has been accused of involvement. “Previous governments for years handed Ecuador over to these criminals, accustoming them to another type of policy. Today they feel threatened and are determined to hinder the progress of this government that, at last, calls them what they are: narco-politicians,” said Noboa. Lafattoria’s legal representative responded on X, stating that the government had been given false information that “seems a justification for not paying the almost $30 million”. In addition, he said that “the insinuation of corruption without evidence constitutes defamation,” adding that the company has been audited by the State Comptroller’s Office and reports to the Financial Analysis Unit against money laundering.

Meanwhile, relatives of the prisoners are pressuring the government with protests in the streets to resolve the food service in jails. The atmosphere is rarefied and poisoned. There is evident concern. Sandra watches a video that is the last proof of life of her son, imprisoned in the Litoral. In the footage, the young man is on the floor of his cell, apparently choking. Another prisoner holds his head so that he can breathe while a third records him. She received the video a week ago and it is one of the few pieces of evidence she has that her son is still alive. The families of the prisoners know little of what has been going on inside the prison walls since January, when Noboa signed the decree authorizing the Armed Forces to take control of the penitentiaries. Since then, visits have been prohibited.

Sandra’s son, Luis, is 21 and has been held for three years in a prison where there have been about a dozen massacres. But his mother is not sure he will survive the torture he is being subjected to. “The day that video was recorded, we had requested habeas corpus for him to receive medical attention and the military went to look for him in his cell to torture him with gas,” says Sandra, while watching the video in which her son babbled that he was going to die.

Relatives pray in front of the North Judicial Complex during a protest.
Relatives pray in front of the North Judicial Complex during a protest.KAREN TORO

Her body trembles with worry and rage as she watches the images, and she bursts into tears explaining that Luis suffers from asthma and that he is much thinner. “He was chubby,” she says. The video shows a skinny young man, his face marked by bones and sunken eyes. “We know that they are not giving them the three meals,” says Sandra, waiting together with other women at the door of the penitentiary with a transparent bag carrying medicines, waiting to glean some information about their sons, husbands, or brothers. But at the gates, the prison guards remain silent.

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