Heavily armed gangsters have stormed the studio of a major television station in Ecuador during a live broadcast, prompting the country’s president to declare a state of “internal armed conflict” amid a series of seemingly coordinated attacks across the South American country.
Police special forces later arrested all the masked gunmen who invaded the headquarters of the TC Televisión network in Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, at about 2pm local time on Tuesday.
Toting pistols, shotguns, machine guns, grenades and sticks of dynamite, around 20 men overran the studio during the El Noticiero news programme. With the cameras broadcasting live, the men could be seen on camera while some employees lay down on the floor and someone was heard yelling “Don’t shoot!” before the signal was eventually cut.
The newspaper El Universo said panicked reporters and camera operators flooded messaging groups with pleas for help as the outlaws rampaged through the building. “They want to kill the lot of us. Help us,” one message read.
Alina Manrique the head of news for TC Television, said she was in the control room, across from the studio, when the group of masked men entered the building. One of the men pointed a gun at her head and told her to get on the floor, she told the Associated Press.
“I am still in shock,” Manriquesaid in a phone interview. “Everything has collapsed … All I know is that it’s time to leave this country, and go very far away.”
Police commander César Zapata later said that all the assailants had been arrested, adding: “This is an act that should be considered as a terrorist act.”
The shocking scenes on live television came as criminal groups launched a wave of terror across Ecuador, amid fresh outbreaks of violence in the country’s prisons.
There were unconfirmed reports of armed men entering a university in Guayaquil and looting in downtown Quito, as well as social media videos apparently showing the lynching of prison guards held hostage by inmates.
Shortly after the assault on the TV station, President Daniel Noboa issued a decree designating 20 drug trafficking gangs as terrorist groups and authorizing Ecuador’s military to “neutralize” the crime factions “within the bounds of international humanitarian law”.
The move came only a day after Noboa, who was elected in October on the promise to crack down on violent crime, declared a state of emergency following the escape from prison of the country’s most dangerous gang leader.
As thousands of soldiers and police searched for Adolfo Macías, alias Fito – the convicted leader of the powerful drug gang Los Choneros – chaos erupted inside and outside jails in an apparent show of force by organised crime gangs.
Related: Ecuador declares emergency as drug-gang kingpin vanishes from prison
Noboa, who was elected in October on the promise to crack down on violent crime, declared a two-month state of emergency late on Monday, vowing to take back control of the country’s prisons, which have repeatedly been the scenes of brutal violence between warring drug gangs that has killed more than 420 inmates since 2021.
“In response, these supposed narcoterrorist groups try to threaten us and believe that we will give in to their demands,” Noboa said in a message posted on social media.
But within hours, a fresh string of attacks began. Three police officers were kidnapped in the southern city of Machala and criminals took a fourth officer in the capital, Quito.
Dozens more prison guards were being held in jails across the country, adding to a number seized on Monday, though Ecuador’s prison authority has not given further details.
The missing gang boss Macías, 44, vanished from prison on Sunday during a prison transfer to a maximum security facility in Guayaquil, the port city at the centre of Ecuador’s brutal descent into violence which has seen homicide rates shoot up by five times in as many years.
The kingpin, who had been serving a 34-year sentence since 2011, had been convicted of drug trafficking, murder and organized crime, but remained a powerful figure even behind bars.
Another dangerous gang leader, Fabricio Colón, escaped Riobamba prison during disturbances on Monday night, the prison service confirmed. Ecuador’s prosecutor’s office has linked Colón, a leader of the Los Lobos gang, to the assassination of the presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio and death threats against the attorney general, Diana Salazar.
Noboa has said he will not negotiate with “terrorists” and his government has blamed the recent prison violence on its plan to build a new high-security prison and transfer jailed gang leaders.
The president also plans to hold a referendum proposing strengthened crime-fighting measures such as seizing assets from suspected criminals and lengthening prison sentences.