QUITO: Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso (pix) on Monday declared a state of emergency in the country grappling with a surge in drug-related violence, and ordered the mobilization of police and military in the streets.

“Starting immediately, our Armed Forces and police will be felt with force in the streets because we are decreeing a state of emergency throughout the national territory,“ said the president in a speech broadcast by the state channel EcuadorTV.

“In the streets of Ecuador there is only one enemy: drug trafficking,“ declared the right-wing leader, adding that “in recent years Ecuador has gone from being a drug trafficking country to one that also consumes drugs.”

The announcement came on the eve of an official visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Ecuador and Colombia in a bid to support and broaden ties with the Latin American democracies.

Blinken will speak with Lasso about cooperation in matters of security, defense and trade.

Violence has been spiking dramatically in Ecuador in recent months. Between January and October this year, the country registered almost 1,900 homicides, compared to about 1,400 in all of 2020, according to the government.

The state of emergency imposed for 60 days allows the government to mobilize 3,600 soldiers and police to patrol 65 prisons nationwide. Lasso said that police will also be patrolling the streets.

Earlier Monday, Lasso named a new defense minister as the country reels from a massive prisons crisis.

The president appointed retired general Luis Hernandez to the post, citing a “inadequate public safety” in the South American nation.

Hernandez will replace Fernando Donoso. The government did not give a reason for the shakeup.

But it comes as the country’s prison system grapples with a spate of bloody riots.

So far in 2021, 238 prisoners have died in the riots.

“Ecuador is experiencing a period of insecurity, an insecurity that has as its origin several factors, one of them drug trafficking,“ said the president, adding that the Andean nation needs “stronger, more solid” armed forces.

Two weeks ago, jailed members of crime groups linked to cartels in Mexico and Colombia battled with firearms for control of a penitentiary in the southwestern city of Guayaquil. The fighting left 119 inmates dead in one of the worst prison massacres in the history of Latin America.

Lasso pointed out that more than 70 percent of violent deaths that occur in the coastal province of Guayas, whose capital is Guayaquil, are in some way related to drug trafficking.

“When drug trafficking grows, so do the numbers of hit men and homicides,“ in addition to other crimes such as robbery, the president said. — AFP