Ecuador in War with Drug Gangs


Important Takeaways:

  • Inmates rioted in jails where gangs wield outsize control, taking prison guards and administrative workers hostage, while on the streets a wave of violence has left 19 people dead.
  • Ecuador’s security forces on Sunday took back control of several prisons that had fallen into the hands of gang members, after securing the release of more than 200 officials held hostage inside the jails.
  • The country’s simmering security crisis erupted last week as the government and powerful narco gangs declared all-out war on each other, after the prison escape of a dangerous drug lord.
  • Unverified images on social media of looting, brutal murders and other attacks have struck terror into the population.
  • Authorities announced the release of 201 prison guards and administrative officials, from prisons across seven provinces.

Read the original article by clicking here.

Special Report: ‘Death Sentence’ – the hidden coronavirus toll in U.S. jails and prisons

By Peter Eisler, Linda So, Ned Parker and Brad Heath

(Reuters) – When COVID-19 began tearing through Detroit’s county jail system in March, authorities had no diagnostic tests to gauge its spread. But the toll became clear as deaths mounted. First, one of the sheriff’s jail commanders died; then, a deputy in a medical unit.

“Working in the Wayne County Jail has now become a DEATH sentence!” the head of the deputy sheriffs’ union, Randall Crawford, wrote on Facebook as the losses mounted.

By mid-April, the jail system’s medical director and one of its doctors also had died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The virus was everywhere, but jail officials had little sense of who was infected and spreading it.

Testing of inmates and staff – needed to determine who should be quarantined to slow transmission – was just getting started. In the weeks since, more than 200 staff and inmates have tested positive.

COVID-19 has spread rapidly behind bars in Detroit and across the nation, according to an analysis of data gathered by Reuters from 20 county jail systems, 10 state prison systems and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which runs federal penitentiaries.

But scant testing and inconsistent reporting from state and local authorities have frustrated efforts to track or contain its spread, particularly in local jails. And figures compiled by the U.S. government appear to undercount the number of infections dramatically in correctional settings, Reuters found.

In a May 6 report, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed 54 state and territorial health departments for data on confirmed COVID-19 infections in all correctional facilities – local jails, state prisons and federal prisons and detention centers. Thirty-seven of those agencies provided data between April 22-28, reporting just under 5,000 inmate cases.

Reuters documented well over three times the CDC’s tally of COVID-19 infections – about 17,300 – in its far more modest survey of local, state and federal corrections facilities conducted about two weeks later. The Reuters survey encompassed jails and prisons holding only 13% of the more than 2 million people behind bars nationwide. Among state prisons doing mass testing of all inmates, Reuters found, some are seeing infection rates up to 65%.

The CDC tally “is dramatically low,” said Aaron Littman, a teaching fellow specializing in prison law and policy at the law school of the University of California, Los Angeles. “We don’t have a particularly good handle” on COVID-19 infections in many correctional and detention facilities, “and in some places we have no handle at all.”

Problems with unreliable data aren’t unique to corrections. Epidemiologists say the incidence of COVID-19 in the general U.S. population also is unclear due to limited testing, especially in the pandemic’s early days. And the CDC acknowledged in its report that its infection count for jails and prisons was similarly hampered by spotty data and “not representative” of the disease’s true prevalence in those facilities.

But uneven testing for COVID-19 in correctional settings and erratic reporting of confirmed cases have profound implications for health officials and policymakers tracking its spread because epidemiologists see jails and prisons as key pathways of transmission.


The United States has more people behind bars than any other nation, a total incarcerated population of more than 2.2 million as of 2018, including nearly 1.5 million in state and federal prisons and just under 740,000 in local jails, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Jails generally keep inmates for short stays: arrestees awaiting trial or people serving short sentences. The churn of these inmates raises the risk of infections among both the inmates themselves and jail staff, who can carry the virus to and from the community.

Prisons, which hold convicted criminals on longer sentences, also are fertile ground for the virus. While inmates come and go far less frequently, the pathogen can be carried in from the community by a single contagious staffer, spread quickly in crowded cell blocks, and be re-introduced to the community by other, newly infected workers.

Reuters collected data from 37 state prison facilities across the country that have done mass testing for COVID-19 among all inmates, including those with no symptoms, and found more than 10,000 confirmed cases among the 44,000 tested. There were 91 deaths from the disease at those facilities, which span 10 states.

In contrast, federal prisons, which typically limit testing to inmates with obvious symptoms, reported confirmed infections in fewer than 4,200 of their total inmate population of about 150,000, with 52 deaths.

The situation in the nation’s 2,800 local jails is even more opaque. Many don’t report their COVID-19 cases publicly, and there is no national tracking of their infection numbers.

Reuters surveyed the 20 U.S. counties with the largest jails, holding an average total of about 73,000 inmates, and found nearly 2,700 confirmed COVID-19 cases – a figure that has risen nearly 30-fold over the past six weeks. While some of that increase is a result of increased testing during that time, it still reflects an almost certain undercount, because testing remains limited in many of those facilities.

The surge in jail infections comes amid a chorus of concerns from judges, oversight agencies, corrections officers, defense lawyers and civil rights groups that most local lockups are ill-equipped to control the virus, which has killed at least 310,600 people worldwide. Unlike state and federal prisons, typically equipped to provide health care for long-term inmates, jails often have little medical capacity.

In health care, jail inmates “are the last and the least and the lost,” said Dr. Thomas Pangburn, chief medical officer for Wellpath LLC, the medical contractor in Wayne County’s jails and hundreds of others nationwide. Many jails have been overlooked in the race to secure COVID-19 test kits and medical supplies for hospitals and nursing homes, he said, but “we have the most vulnerable population in a very confined space meant for correctional housing – and not for medical care.”

In many jails and prisons, the toll of COVID-19 on corrections officers and other staff approaches that of inmates – and here, too, the numbers reported to the CDC by state and local authorities appear to be a vast undercount.

The CDC report documented nearly 2,800 COVID-19 cases among staff across all U.S. correctional facilities. But Reuters found more than 80% of that number – upwards of 2,300 infected jail and prison workers – in its far less comprehensive survey of just the federal prison system, a few dozen state prisons and the 20 counties with the biggest local jails.

In an effort to curb infection rates, many jails and prisons are releasing inmates to create more distance among those remaining behind bars. That has raised concerns about whether inmates, particularly in jails, are being screened for COVID-19 before returning to the community, where many can’t get medical care.

More than 37,000 state and federal prisoners have been released since March 31, according to U.S. government data and records collected from 41 state prison systems by the Vera Institute of Justice, a research group that seeks to reduce incarcerated populations. There is no national tracking of local jail releases, but in just the 20 counties surveyed by Reuters, at least 14,000 jail inmates have been let go.

Releasing inmates is critical “both in jails and surrounding communities, because of the role jails serve as vectors” for spreading the virus, said Udi Ofer, justice division director at the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed dozens of “decarceration” suits and legal petitions. “It’s a crisis.”

Some groups have pushed back. Victims’ rights group Marsy’s Law, named after the murdered sister of billionaire Henry Nicholas, has criticized the releases, expressing concern that crime victims aren’t always notified when inmates are let out.


U.S. President Donald Trump declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency on March 13. By that time, officials in the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office already were scrambling to address a looming outbreak in their three jails.

Days earlier, Sheriff Benny Napoleon and Chief Robert Dunlap, the jails supervisor, had laid plans to keep inmates more separated, cut public visits and quarantine new arrivals – rules that took effect just after Trump’s announcement. On March 19, the jail also began releasing low-level offenders, for the most part inmates with risky medical conditions.

Staff and inmates were already falling ill across the jail system, which typically houses a population of about 1,400. Donafay Collins, 63, a jail commander, was hospitalized with a COVID-19 infection that would kill him less than two weeks later – the first death among the four staffers claimed by the virus.

“It’s like a bad dream,” Chief Dunlap said in an interview with Reuters.

Meanwhile, getting diagnostic tests and protective equipment to track and manage the virus proved challenging, Dunlap said. Suppliers had little to offer, and just about everything they had was going to hospitals and emergency medical services.

Hunting for face masks, the sheriff’s office turned to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who had been pressing the federal government to give states more supplies from federal stockpiles. On March 20, state officials sent the sheriff 7,500 N-95 masks provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The highly protective masks are used by staff handling sick inmates, Dunlap said. Basic surgical masks became available later for more routine use by both staff and inmates, he added.

Getting test kits proved even harder. As COVID-19 raced through Wayne County’s jails in March, corrections officers needing tests had to visit a local testing center or hospital, where they often were refused if they did not show specific symptoms, Dunlap said. It wasn’t until April 6 – the day the virus killed the jails’ medical director, Dr. Angelo Patsalis – that officers began getting regular tests through the Wayne State University Physician Group.

Getting the tests was “a matter of life and death,” said Crawford, the head of the deputy sheriffs’ union, in an interview.

For inmates, however, testing remained elusive.

In late March, the sheriff directed the jail’s medical contractor, Wellpath, to obtain test kits for inmates, but the company couldn’t get enough due to heavy demand, Dunlap said. “Wellpath, like every other provider around this county, couldn’t get them.” So, COVID-19 testing was limited to inmates with symptoms.

By April 30, the jail’s population had dropped to just 834 inmates – about 500 had been released – and only 89 had been tested for the new coronavirus. Of those tested, 29 were positive, just over 30%, according to the sheriff’s office. Among the sheriff’s 810-member staff, 196 had tested positive, or 23% – of whom 89 have returned to work.

On May 7, the jail expanded testing to all inmates under a grant from the Hudson Webber Foundation. That should “further mitigate the spread of the virus” inside and outside the jail, Dunlap said, and help identify infected inmates before release.

As in many states, Michigan’s prison system began universal testing earlier than the jails.

On April 21, Michigan’s Department of Corrections began testing for coronavirus infections in large numbers of inmates even if they showed no sign of illness, said department spokesman Chris Gautz.

Demands for mass testing are growing. The ACLU and the Council of Prison Locals, representing 30,000 federal prison employees, called earlier this month for universal testing in all federal lockups.

But some public health experts are ambivalent on that approach. The CDC’s guidance for correctional facilities calls for quick COVID-19 testing of inmates who appear symptomatic, but it takes no position on universal testing.

The guidance reflects a belief among some public health experts that testing only symptomatic inmates and, in some scenarios, a sample of the rest may suffice for assessing the virus’ overall prevalence in a jail or prison, said Marc Stern, former medical director for the Washington State prison system and a faculty member at the University of Washington School of Public Health. Testing every asymptomatic inmate may not make sense if a jail lacks the capacity to isolate and trace the contacts of those who test positive – and also because not everyone who tests positive may be contagious.

In Michigan’s prison system, however, officials say mass testing has been valuable.

“If you don’t know where the problem is, you can’t fix it,” spokesman Gautz said.


Charles Peterson, 78, began showing symptoms of COVID-19 a week after a parole violation landed him in Colorado’s Weld County Jail on March 11. By the time he was released on March 30, he was on the verge of dying from it.

Peterson declined quickly, two fellow inmates told Reuters. Coughing and disoriented, they said, he eventually struggled to stand and began losing control of his bladder and bowels.

Donovan Birch said he and other inmates alerted jail staff, but Peterson was left in the general population. Birch also became ill with COVID-19 symptoms after his exposure to Peterson, he said, but never was tested.

Peterson “needed help,” said Birch, who was jailed on a parole violation for trespassing charges. “I knew he was going to die if he didn’t get it.”

Instead, Peterson was released; two days later, he was dead. Official cause: “acute respiratory failure, viral pneumonia and COVID-19 infection.”

Peterson likely was a “superspreader,” according to an infectious disease expert who inspected the jail on behalf of inmates for a lawsuit they filed seeking better sanitary and safety measures. By early May, at least 10 of the jail’s roughly 480 inmates had tested positive for the virus – but just 22 had been tested. Eighteen deputies had also been infected, the jail said.

The inmates’ lawsuit claims Weld County Sheriff Steven Reams “willfully disregarded public health guidelines” by leaving three to four inmates to a cell, sharing sinks and toilets, as the virus spread. “Failing to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 endangers not only those within the institution,” the suit says, “but the entire community.” Reams declined to comment.

The case is among more than 100 lawsuits nationwide, many of them class-action cases, seeking mass releases of inmates or other measures to reduce overcrowding and infection risks in jails hit by the new coronavirus, according to the UCLA law school’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. Many of those cases, as well as hundreds more filed by individual inmates, argue that confinement in facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks violates the U.S. Constitution’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Inmates have been issued masks since early April and have access to soap, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, said Weld County Sheriff’s spokesman Joe Moylan. He noted the jail has been on lockdown since April 1 – the day Peterson died – and inmates are rotated out of their cells in small groups to common areas that allow for social distancing. He declined to comment on the litigation and the specific cases of Peterson and Birch.

Peterson was released after Colorado’s Department of Corrections decided not to hold him for his parole violation, part of the effort to slow COVID-19 transmission in local jails by reducing inmate populations. Since March 1, the jail has reduced its population by more than 300 inmates; fewer than half its 954 beds are occupied.

Peterson’s parole violation involved failing to renew his sex offender registration while living at “Rock Found,” a re-entry home for convicts returning to the community. When he was let out of jail, a former Rock Found roommate brought him back to the home, cold, shivering, barely able to walk.

The program director called paramedics.

“I honestly could not believe that not a single person from the Weld County Jail had told anyone at Rock Found that they were releasing a seriously sick person into our care,” the director, Cheryl Cook, said in a statement filed in the inmates’ lawsuit.

Moylan, the sheriff’s spokesman, said Peterson was not tested for COVID-19 because he was not overtly symptomatic.

The conditions at the jail violated the constitutional rights of medically vulnerable inmates, a federal judge ruled May 11. He ordered the sheriff to socially distance those at risk, provide single cells when possible, and improve cleaning of communal spaces.

Many of the problems addressed by the judge were identified by the plaintiffs’ expert witness during two visits to the jail in April. He reported to the court that he found most inmates confined to group cells more than 22 hours a day with no handwashing options unless they were let out to a bathroom. Many complained of unsanitary conditions and said shared sinks and toilets were not cleaned between uses, the expert reported.

Ralph Brewer, 41, jailed for violating a restraining order, told Reuters he was directed to continue working in the kitchen after developing nausea and a bad cough. Staffing was short, he was told, so he had to work unless he had a fever.

“It really concerned me. We had no masks, just gloves,” Brewer said. He requested a doctor to check his lungs, he said, but nurses only gave him Tylenol, cough medicine and instructions to stay hydrated.

Brewer was released on April 3 and his daughter took him straight to an urgent care clinic. The doctor said he had COVID-19 symptoms – no tests were available – and told him to quarantine for 14 days, Brewer said. He recovered at his mother’s house.

“I was lucky to get out, but I’m worried about the people still in jail,” Brewer said. “It’s crazy in there.”

(Additional reporting and data analysis by Grant Smith. Peter Eisler, Linda So and Brad Heath reported from Washington. Ned Parker reported from New York. Editing by Jason Szep)

Pence meets Erdogan to urge halt to Turkey’s Syria offensive

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrives at Esenboga International Airport in Ankara, Turkey, October 17, 2019. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

Pence meets Erdogan to urge halt to Turkey’s Syria offensive
By Orhan Coskun and Humeyra Pamuk

ANKARA (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey on Thursday on a mission to persuade him to halt an offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, but Turkish officials said the action would continue regardless.

The assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 200,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for President Donald Trump.

Trump has been accused of abandoning Kurdish-led fighters, Washington’s main partners in the battle to dismantle Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria, by withdrawing troops from the border as Ankara launched its offensive on Oct. 9.

Trump defended his move on Wednesday as “strategically brilliant”. He said he thought Pence and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan would have a successful meeting, but warned of sanctions and tariffs that “will be devastating to Turkey’s economy” otherwise.

The White House released a letter from Trump to Erdogan from Oct. 9 that said: “Don’t be a tough guy” and “Don’t be a fool!” Turkish broadcaster CNN Turk said Turkey had rejected Trump’s appeal to reach a deal to avoid conflict and the letter was “thrown in the trash”.

A Turkish official told Reuters: “The letter Trump sent did not have the impact he expected in Turkey because it had nothing to take seriously.

“What is clear is that Turkey does not want a terrorist organization on its border and the operation will not stop because of the reaction that has been coming.”

Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not speak to reporters before the start of the meeting with Erdogan, but the official said they were likely to convey the same U.S. demands, adding: “However, negotiating with a terrorist organization or turning back from the ongoing operation are not on the agenda.”

On Monday, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC that the United States was prepared to levy additional sanctions on if necessary “to keep Turkey in line”.

A top aide to Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, said Turkey’s foreign ministry was preparing to retaliate for the sanctions by its NATO ally.


Erdogan has dismissed the sanctions and rejected a global chorus of calls to halt the offensive, which Turkey says will create a “safe zone” extending 20 miles (32 km) into northeast Syria to ensure the return of millions of Syrian refugees and clear the area of Kurdish militia Ankara views as terrorists.

Turkey will end its operation when Kurdish forces withdraw from the “safe zone” and “no power” can deter the operation until it reaches its goals, the Turkish leader said.

Trump has defended his move to withdraw troops from Syria as part of a wider effort to bring U.S. soldiers home from “endless wars”, despite criticism by members of his own Republican Party.

Turkey’s operation has allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to send his Russian-backed forces to an area that had been beyond his control for years in the more than eight-year-old Syrian war.

It also prompted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the Kurdish YPG is the main component, to strike a deal with Damascus for its help in countering Turkish forces.

Russia has promised Turkey that the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia targeted by the offensive will not be in the Syrian territories across the border, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the BBC on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said Syria should get control over its border with Turkey as part of any settlement of the conflict in the region.

Assad vowed that Syria would respond to the Turkish offensive on any part of its territory with “all legitimate means” available, Syrian state media said on Thursday.

Ankara views the U.S.-backed YPG as a terrorist organization because of its link to Kurdish militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey, and had been infuriated by Washington’s support.

A Reuters cameraman along the Turkish border with Syria said clashes continued around the border town of Ras al Ain on Thursday and that Turkish warplanes were flying overhead after a lull in fighting overnight.

Ankara had previously said it has taken control of Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad, two key towns along the frontier.

The region’s Kurdish-led authority called for a corridor “to evacuate dead and wounded civilians” from Ras al-Ain. It said people were trapped in the town, urging foreign powers including the U.S.-led coalition and Russia, to intervene to get them out.

Syrian troops accompanied by Russian forces have meanwhile entered Kobani, a strategic border city and potential flashpoint for a wider conflict, said the British-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV reported that Russian-backed Syrian forces had also set up outposts in Raqqa, the one-time capital of Islamic State’s caliphate, which the Kurds captured in 2017 at the peak of their campaign with U.S. support.

Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV said from the Tabqa military air base near Raqqa that Syrian government troops had advanced in that area.

“We entered the Tabqa military airport easily, there was no difficulty,” an army officer told the channel from the base, where Islamic State fighters executed scores of Syrian troops and circulated a video of their corpses in 2014.

Soldiers entered Tabqa and nearby villages on Monday, state media said, a deployment that restored the state’s foothold in that part of Syria for the first time in years.

With U.S. air power and special forces, the SDF had battled for weeks in 2017 to take Tabqa and a nearby hydroelectric dam – the country’s largest dam – from Islamic State.


The Kurdish-led administration in the region said theTurkish offensive had killed 218 civilians, including 18 children since it started a week ago. The fighting has also wounded more than 650 people, it said.

Turkish authorities say 20 people have been killed in Turkey by bombardment from Syria, including eight people who were killed in a mortar attack on the town of Nusaybin by YPG militants on Friday, according to the local governor’s office.

In Geneva, humanitarian agencies said they were struggling to meet the needs of up to 200,000 civilians who had fled the fighting and reported water shortages in the Syrian city of Hasaka.

The operation has also created a land-rush between Turkey and Russia – now the undisputed foreign powers in the area – to partition Kurdish areas that were formerly under U.S protection.

Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, has called the offensive “unacceptable” and said it must be limited in time and scale.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Ellen Francis in Beirut and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

Trump-backed criminal justice bill heads for votes in Senate

FILE PHOTO: Jail cells are seen in the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit at the Rikers Island Correctional facility in New York March 12, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Monday prepared to vote this week on bipartisan criminal justice legislation supported by President Donald Trump, although critics were forcing debate on a series of changes before allowing a decision on passage.

The “First Step Act” would ease the way for certain prison inmates to win early release to halfway houses or home confinement. It also would create programs to reduce recidivism and protect first-time non-violent offenders from harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noted that a “number” of senators still had problems with the bill.

But in a procedural move on Monday evening, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to advance the measure, clearing the way for debate on amendments before a possible vote on passage later in the week.

Even with Senate passage, the House of Representatives would still have to act in the waning days of this Congress before it could be sent to Trump for signing into law.

Conservative senators already have won some changes to the bill, paring back the discretion judges would have to sentence felons with criminal histories beneath mandatory minimums.

At the end of 2016, according to U.S. Justice Department figures, nearly 2.2 million people were incarcerated in prisons or local jails.

That makes the United States the world leader in prison population, according to private estimates.

Republican senators Tom Cotton and John Kennedy were pushing for approval of three amendments that would further tighten requirements.

They address excluding child molesters and other violent felons from early release, notifying victims before offenders are let out early and a measure to track the effectiveness of anti-recidivism programs, according to Senate aides.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Dan Grebler)