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Ecuador in state of emergency after notorious gang leader escapes prison

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

A wave of violence is rippling across Ecuador. That's after one of the country's most notorious criminals escaped from prison over the weekend. The president had declared a state of emergency. Then earlier today, he upgraded that to a state of, quote, "internal armed conflict." Meanwhile, the country is engulfed by growing chaos, including armed gunmen taking over the set of a public TV broadcaster. Reporter Jorge Valencia has more.

JORGE VALENCIA, BYLINE: This all started on Sunday. Authorities were searching a prison in the coastal city of Guayaquil. That's when they realized a high-profile inmate was missing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CESAR ZAPATA: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: They couldn't find Adolfo Macias, also known as Fito, says Police General Cesar Zapata. Macias is the head of the powerful gang Los Choneros, and he's been accused with masterminding the murder of a candidate during Ecuador's presidential election last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZAPATA: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: General Zapata told reporters on Sunday that authorities would conduct an extensive search. But soon after, inmates in prisons across Ecuador rioted, overpowered guards and took them hostage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DANIEL NOBOA: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: The new president, Daniel Noboa, escalated the search. On Monday, he declared a 60-day state of emergency, instating a national curfew and closing any schools near prisons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NOBOA: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: "That's why we're taking action to take back control of the prisons," Noboa said.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK HORN HONKING)

VALENCIA: Armored trucks rolled onto city streets. Soldiers in fatigues marched wearing masks and carrying rifles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: Then this afternoon the wave of violence took a new turn. Masked gunmen walked onto the set of a live television show broadcasting from the city of Guayaquil. They pointed guns at a terrified host, told him they had bombs and flashed in front of the cameras what appeared to be hand grenades. They were later arrested by police. President Noboa, who was sworn in just two months ago, had campaigned largely on a promise to contain the spiraling violence, but today that violence was broadcast live on air.

For NPR News, I'm Jorge Valencia in Bogota.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADANNA DURU SONG, "POP!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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