ROME – With at least 79 inmates killed in riots in three prisons in Ecuador on Feb. 23,  Catholic bishops are calling for a “humanization” of detention centers.

The prisoners were killed — some of them dismembered and beheaded — in a turf war between rival gangs after on of the most powerful gang leaders in the country was murdered in December.

“The critical situation in which people deprived of liberty live in the various Social Rehabilitation Centers are nothing more than a reflection of the prison crisis, social decomposition and collective indifference in the face of this harsh reality,” the bishops wrote in a statement released Thursday.

The prelates also urged authorities to carry out “a true evaluation of the prison system and develop fully humane programs” in line with the Constitution.

“We extend our Christian solidarity to the families of our brothers deprived of freedom who have died, and we assure them of our prayer for their eternal rest invoking divine mercy upon them,” they said.

The prelates also made themselves, and the Church’s prison ministry, available to try to solve the crisis and deescalate tensions, and to provide “support to those who today suffer the loss of their loved ones.”

Though the events are still being scrutinized, it is believed that the coordinated fights in the three jails, that hold close to 70 percent of Ecuador’s inmates, broke in the maximum-security wings as rival gangs fought for leadership in the centers.

Prisons director Edmundo Moncayo said two groups were trying to gain “criminal leadership within the detention centers.”

Authorities regained control of the facilities in three cities after raids by hundreds of police officers and military personnel, but the climate of mistrust persist, as does the fear of a new revolt taking place, and ongoing threat since the December death of a leader of organized crime.

Though prison revolts are not unprecedented in Ecuador, local observers all point out towards the never-before-seen scale of the violence, with prisoners being beheaded or having their hearts removed.

The prisons’ maximum-security areas tend to house inmates linked to killings, drug trafficking, extortion, and other major crimes, and are heavily overpopulated: Built for some 27,000 inmates, the Ecuadorian prison system houses 38,000 inmates.

In their statement, the bishops quoted Pope Francis’s remarks to the staff of the Regina Coeli prison in Rome, delivered on Feb. 7, 2019: “Prisons need to become more and more humane and it is painful to hear, instead, that many times they are considered places of violence and illegality, where human evils abound.”

According to article 201 of Ecuador’s Constitution, the objective of the social rehabilitation system is “the comprehensive rehabilitation of criminally sentenced persons in order to reintegrate them into society, as well as the protection of persons deprived of freedom and the guarantee of their rights.”

Ecuador is located between Colombia and Peru, the world’s largest cocaine producers. It is used by traffickers as a transit country for the drugs headed to the United States and Europe.

The South American nation seized a record of 128 tons of drugs, mainly cocaine, in 2020, surpassing the mark of 110 tons established in 2016.

“We are still living a time of crisis,” acknowledged Patricio Pazmiño, the government minister in charge of the national police.

He spoke on Thursday while evaluating the prison situation after the riots, which also left a score of prisoners and police officers injured.

He was accompanied by the commander of the Police, General Patricio Carrillo, who said that “the prison system has structural problems that we will not be able to solve now.”

The influence of organized crime in prisons is growing in the region, and not only in Ecuador. On Feb. 16, seven people lost their lives, with three of them being beheaded, in Paraguay, during organized gang violence in a prison in Asuncion, the country’s capital.

The rebellion lasted for almost 24 hours, with 19 prison guards being kidnapped by inmates. In response to events, the Catholic bishops of Paraguay also released a statement, denouncing the terrible conditions of the national penitentiary system.

“The facts demonstrate that it does not make sense to have a superstructure to detain people who have outstanding accounts with the justice system, if strong corruption continues to prevail in prisons and if a deep prison reform is not carried out,” they wrote.

They also lamented the lack of effective actions to “reduce the prison population that is awaiting sentencing and to avoid overcrowding, which is detrimental to the fundamental rights of every human being.”

The Tacumbú prison, where the riots took place, houses 4,100 inmates, twice its capacity.

In their statement, the Paraguayan bishops also expressed their concern “with the extreme violence with which criminal groups act … controlling national authorities through extortion and have control over the prison population.”

Recalling that “many of those who are deprived of their freedom and are serving a sentence, or are waiting for justice to act according to the law, have dreams and hopes, have families waiting for them and really want to be reintegrated into society,” the bishops urged “the national government, the judiciary and the legislature to redouble their efforts” and to take a more humane view of those who are deprived of their freedom and who deserve a second chance.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma