Ecuador on Friday deployed thousands of police and soldiers to secure its violent prisons as relatives of convicts caught up in one of South America's deadliest inmate riots clamored for news about their fate.
At least 118 inmates were killed, six of them beheaded, as rival gangs armed with guns and grenades went to war at the Guayaquil prison on Tuesday.
Another 86 wounded were wounded, six critically, according to Ecuador's prisons authority.
It was the latest in a string of bloody clashes in Ecuador's broken prison system, with 237 inmates killed so far this year -- up from 103 in 2020.
"The government has mobilized 3,600 members of the national police and the armed forces ... in all of Ecuador's prisons," Interior Minister Alexandra Vela told reporters in Quito Friday, saying it was to ensure security.
Police retook control of the Guayaquil prison complex Thursday evening after a massive security operation involving some 900 officers and members of tactical units, with soldiers and tanks were stationed outside the jail.
Meanwhile, relatives gathered at a police morgue Friday to claim the bodies of their loved ones, or at least get confirmation of their fate.
"I came because I saw a video, sent to me by cell phone, where I recognized his head," said Ermes Duarte, desperate for word on his son who he said had just 15 days left to serve.
"I haven't spoken to my son since Monday," the 71-year-old told AFP.
So far, 41 of the Guayaquil bodies have been identified, officials said, and 22 turned over to their families.
- Three sons dead -
Ecuador's prisons are the scene of frequent clashes between thousands of inmates with ties to drug gangs -- mainly the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels.
The prison system has 65 facilities designed for about 30,000 inmates but houses 39,000 -- 8,500 of them in Guayaquil.
The country has about 1,500 guards -- a shortfall of about 3,000, according to experts.
Corruption is rife, enabling prisoners to acquire all sorts of contraband, including arms and ammunition.
At Friday's press conference, prisons director Bolivar Garzon announced that about 2,000 inmates over the age of 65, or in ill health, will be freed in a bid to relieve overcrowding.
At the morgue, Daniel Villacis, 57, said he lost three sons in the latest prison clash.
Clutching a banner that read "You left without saying goodbye..." and a picture of one of his children, Villacis told AFP two of his sons' bodies were already at home, and he was waiting for the third.
A woman in search of her brother said she had seen an image of a severed head "which looked like his".
Police continued searches of the prison Friday for arms and ammunition. On Thursday, they seized three pistols, several rounds of ammunition, 25 knives and three explosive devices.
The government decreed a state of emergency after Tuesday's riot, suspending the civil rights of prisoners and authorizing the deployment of the armed forces to restore and maintain order.
- 'A war' -
On February 23, simultaneous riots at four jails including Guayaquil left 79 inmates dead, several of them also beheaded.
Two weeks ago, Guayaquil's Prison Number 4 was attacked by drones, part of "a war between international cartels," prison authorities said. There were no casualties in that attack.
Jaqueline Cox, 52, said she identified the body of her son Jorge Mojarras, 28, from a tattoo on his back in a picture shown to her by forensics experts at Guayaquil morgue.
He was in jail for stealing a mobile phone, she said.
Located between Colombia and Peru, the world's leading cocaine producers, Ecuador is a key transit for drug shipments to the United States and Europe.
Guayaquil is Ecuador's most populous city and its main port.