A sense of dread took hold in Ecuador on Wednesday, with the streets empty, classes canceled, and many people afraid to leave their homes after the disappearance of two gang leaders on Monday set off prison riots, police kidnappings and the on-air storming of a TV station.
The violence, which prompted the president to authorize Ecuador’s military to take on the country’s powerful gangs, has left the South American country on edge.
“I feel like the world I knew before is gone,” said María Ortega, a schoolteacher in Guayaquil, a large coastal city. “You can know how things start, but not how they’ll end.”
In Guayaquil, where TC Televisión was briefly seized on Tuesday and the authorities said at least eight people died amid a spate of violence, public transit had resumed and some people ventured outside. TC Televisión was not broadcasting, with only colored lines appearing on the screen where news reports would usually appear.
Life was far from normal.
In Quito, the capital, military officers patrolled near the presidential palace. Subway stations usually crowded with commuters were mostly deserted. President Daniel Noboa declared a state of emergency on Monday, imposing an overnight curfew and allowing the military to take over prisons and patrol the streets.
The police reported that 70 people had been arrested and accused of committing attacks and terrorist acts.
The military made clear that the gangs that have unleashed unrest in recent days would face a heavy hand.
“From this moment on, every terrorist group,” Jaime Vela Erazo, the commander of the Armed Forces, said, “has become a military target.”
“The present and the future of our homeland is at stake and no act of terror will make us give in,” he added. “We will not back down or negotiate. Good, justice and order cannot ask for permission or bow their heads to terrorists.”
In recent years, Ecuador has been subsumed by drug-related violence, as some two dozen gangs have sprouted up, battling for control of lucrative drug-trafficking routes and cities.
Ecuadoreans live in constant fear, with murders and robbery surging and extortion on the rise. As gangs have proliferated, the country’s crumbling prisons have come to serve as their headquarters and recruiting centers.
Adolfo Macías, the leader of Los Choneros, disappeared on Sunday from the Guayaquil prison that his gang largely controls. Fabricio Colón Pico, the leader of another gang, Los Lobos, went missing early Tuesday from a prison in the central city of Riobamba.
The violence began to escalate after Mr. Macías, better known as “Fito,” disappeared.
As soldiers poured into the prison compound, uprisings began in many of the country’s 36 prisons, as many as one-fourth of which are believed to be controlled by gangs. Videos posted on social media showed guards being held at knife point by inmates. In one video, an inmate addressed Mr. Noboa, telling him that guards would be killed if he sent the military into the prisons.
The violence soon spilled over into civilian life. Explosions were reported across the country, police officers were kidnapped, several hospitals were seized and police and armed actors exchanged gunfire, including near a Guayaquil school.
The violence peaked on Tuesday afternoon, when masked men briefly took over TC Televisión in Guayaquil during a live broadcast, taking the anchors and staff hostage and demanding to send out a message directed at the government not to interfere “with the mafias.”
Not long after, Mr. Noboa, the president, declared an “internal armed conflict” and directed the military to “neutralize” the country’s two dozen gangs, which the government labeled “terrorist organizations.”
Gang leaders like Mr. Macías have overseen their criminal rings from behind bars using contraband electronics. Along with plans to transfer Mr. Macías from his cell, where he was serving a 34-year sentence, to a maximum-security facility, Mr. Noboa’s government recently made moves to increase security in the prisons and cut off leaders’ access to the outside world.
Experts said that Mr. Macías could have learned of the government’s plan to transfer him and other high-profile convicts to the maximum-security facility through a leak, and that could have prompted his escape and the prison uprisings.
Ms. Ortega, the schoolteacher from Guayaquil, said she understood that the measures taken this week by Mr. Noboa’s government were necessary after the prison escapes and violent attacks.
“I suppose this is something that the government has to do, ” she said. “I hope they have the clarity to see it is not all that they have to do.”