Ecuador’s “black site”

On prison securitization and its zones of legal silence
Chris Garces
Abstract: When a state of emergency in Ecuador’s prison system was declared in
2007, municipal leaders in Guayaquil built the country’s first “supermax” prison,
La Roca, for the administrative segregation of inmates considered a security
threat. I suggest that administrative curtailment of access to these so-called “worst
of the worst” prisoners merits legal comparisons with the juridical status of de-
tainees in US “black site” facilities, the inter-American drug wars now paralleling
the global war on terror insofar as prisoners’ rights are concerned. Contrasting my
brief visit to La Roca with political-economic and media analysis, my article draws
two conclusions: (1) that limited physical access to prisoners, stimulated by ad-
ministrative “zones of legal silence”, demands an ethnographic focus on daily con-
ditions of prison life using inconsistencies in administrative rhetoric; and (2) that
measures to securitize the prison system have augmented prison directors’ powers
to coerce inmates and to confound understandings of their living conditions.
Keywords: drug wars, Ecuador, gangs, prisons, security
Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 68 (2014): 18–34
© Stichting Focaal and Berghahn Books
Throughout Latin America, the last decade wit-
nessed an unprecedented spilling over of prison
violence outside the space of the prison itself.
Time and again, cellblock mafias and their sicar-
ios demonstrated their macabre and unsettling
resilience. Consider just a tiny sample. In north-
ern Mexico, imprisoned cartel members notori-
ously collaborated with their warders, who in
turn set inmates free to assassinate targets out-
side the prison and then slip back inside unno-
ticed (BBC 2010). In another facility, scores of
Zetas managed to escape their specially desig-
nated containment wing to kill 44 of their Gulf
Cartel rivals in another wing and then flee en
masse while prison guards were busy “avoiding
[the] violent jailbreak” (Guardian 2012). In Rio
de Janeiro, Brazil, security measures taken to
segregate the region’s most powerful trafficker—
moving him from a medium- to a maximum-
security prison—stimulated a gang-led, obliga-
tory general strike that brought the city to a
virtual standstill (Penglase 2005). In Medellín,
Colombia, city mayor Sergio Fajardo has been
internationally lauded for restoring peace to
whole neighborhoods ravaged by paramilitary
fighting, though most who praise Fajardo are
less aware that his civic leaders negotiated a
cease-fire with Don Berna, the city’s incarcerated
paramilitary high commander (Grillo 2011:
289–290). In Guayaquil, Ecuador, where I have
carried out years of fieldwork, those few prison
directors who dared to challenge the cellblock
leaders’ sovereign privileges were systematically
Such is the contentious traffic between Latin
American prison authorities, the inmate shadow
hierarchies, and the broader networks that mo-
bilize them—and such is the need for immedi-
ate critique of overlapping state and criminal
violence. This article endeavors to get as close as
possible to the nebulous “zones of legal silence”
in which penal state discourses articulate with
informal prison hierarchies. In what follows, I
describe a human rights delegation’s recent visit
to La Roca, a maximum-security prison com-
plex in Guayaquil, Ecuador, currently serving as
a site of untold carceral experimentation with
inmate segregation and isolation from the gen-
eral population—a type of confinement more
properly known around the globe as the super-
max prison. Specifically, I consider a robust
rhetorical encounter between this team of legal
advocates and La Roca’s prison director, analyz-
ing their exchange against a background of
political-economic and media critiques of state
penalization; in the process, I problematize how
advanced security measures may: (1) enhance
the abilities of prison directors to coerce their
wards; and (2) also mute or silence any direct,
legal-forensic understandings of prison living
Daniel Goldstein (2010) has challenged
ethnographers to build upon what he calls “crit-
ical security studies,” a project that should hold
a central place within scholarly commitments
to problematize the contemporary geopolitical
situation. My wager in this article, however, is
that anthropological critique of the national se-
curity state can manage to probe its deepest
structures of exceptionality—namely, the secu-
rity lockups dedicated to legally disappearing
the most intransigent populations and quietly
experimenting with their forms of custody. An-
alyzing the globalization of inmate administra-
tive segregation (eg. Ross 2013), I claim in what
follows that Ecuador’s harshest conditions of
punitive enclosure can be likened to US “black
site” confinement strategies, precisely to the ex-
tent that both penal technologies create not just
spatial segregation and unapproachable distance,
but also “zones of legal silence” between prison-
ers and advocates for rule of law protections.
What is a “black site”?
This study of administrative segregation, or “ad
seg,” in La Roca builds on my Ecuadorian field-
work on the rise of neoliberal hyperincarcera-
tion, and the ways in which organized prison
protests may illuminate the obscure machinery
of penal state power. Studying prison conditions
a decade ago, Ecuador’s political landscape of-
fered few alternatives to neoliberal reforms.
Carranza et al. (1983) were among the first to
document the initially spiking numbers of indi-
viduals being held in pretrial detention in Ecua -
dor, and throughout Latin American countries,
during the 1980s, when the state underwent
structural adjustments and major shifts in penal
practice. In Rosa del Olmo’s words, looking
back with twenty years’ hindsight, “[a]nachro-
nistic procedures, corruption and inefficiency
play[ed] important roles [in the swelling prison
population], but so [did] … the significant rate
of drug-related offenders … being punished
very harshly by recent legislation” (1998: 117).
By the turn of the millennium, the average
Latin American pretrial detainee waited at least
three years before seeing his or her day in court
(ibid.). In countries embroiled with drug war
policies, the spiking numbers of individuals be-
ing held in pretrial detention, rather than judg-
ment-and-sentence custody, was fast turning
into the de facto mode of state punishment.
In Ecuador, this politico-juridical precedent
has been turned on its head since Rafael Correa
and his coalition party, the Alianza PAIS,
gained power. Under its new regime of twenty-
first-century socialism, Ecuador’s federal gov-
ernment decriminalized possession of small
amounts of marijuana and cocaine intended for
personal consumption, and nullified the policy
of indefinite incarceration without sentence
(detención en firme)—twinned shifts in legisla-
tion that immediately reshaped the prison itself.
Ecuador’s “black site”: On prison securitization and its zones of legal silence | 19
The national population in legal custody de-
creased by approximately one-third within two
years of the enactment of these reforms.  Yet
Ecuador’s counterneoliberal legislation at the
level of the federal government was quickly met
with great resistance from regional autonomist
strongholds, such as the lowland port city of
Guayaquil, the nation’s major economic and
neoliberal urban center.
In Guayaquil, a new modality of incarcera-
tion has appeared over the last five years that
can only be explained in terms of a well-orches-
trated municipal resistance to Rafael Correa’s
policies, doubling down on the containment of
drug trafficking while the state pushes for the
decarceration of small-time drug users. Non-
governmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated
to providing “citizens’ security” are on the rise
throughout much of the country, and are fa-
vored antipolitical state mechanisms for neigh-
borhood and grassroots development projects
(cf. Nuñez Vega 2011). These organizations in
Guayaquil, such as the Corporación de la Se-
guridad Ciudadana, have attended to their local
constituents’ civil society demands for law and
order policies and have subsidized the expan-
sion of prison facilities by organizing a fledg-
ling, third-sector prison-industrial complex.
On the one hand, Guayaquil’s  fast-expanding
prison capacities, and, on the other hand, the
state’s newfound observance of state protections
against detención en firme, have curiously stim-
ulated an increase in punitive containment. In
Guayaquil, crime suspects have typically been
thrown into the city’s police lockups and in the
Penitenciaría del Litoral, where they are held in
custody the maximum legal duration of their
remand status as pretrial detainees and then
immediately released.
This new penal regime of transitory mass
confinement has led directly to cellblock over-
crowding and the consolidation of prison mafia
influence. As local prisons fill up with the newly
indicted, formal and informal cellblock leaders
(“caporales”) have continued to profit from the
extortion of newly admitted detainees. With
prison mafias threatening and even attacking
prison officials bent on reform, the state re-
leased funding to build new maximum-security
facilities to house the country’s most influential
prisoners in permanent isolation from the gen-
eral population. My aim in pointing out the ob-
scure intimacy of local state and prison mafia
developments, however, is not to account for
the intransigence of criminal networks or
“gangs” operating inside penitentiaries. Instead,
I seek to demonstrate how the violence being
unleashed by these groups can only be under-
stood in concert with the organizing violence of
spiking incarceration rates, or the adoption of a
Latin American security state model of govern-
ing through prison corruption.
Drawing attention to the obscure bureau-
cratic art of “governing through prison corrup-
tion”, I am purposefully modifying Jonathan
Simon’s (2007) apt phrase “governing through
crime” in order to highlight how the twenty-
first-century penal state has witnessed a dra-
matic expansion of unchecked executive power—
whatever political form it may take—based on
the successful administrative-rhetorical strat-
egy of fighting crime. In the US context, Simon
shows how the erasure of civil rights in the af-
termath of 9/11 was long in coming; the abuses
to legal process synonymous with the current
US state of exception may date as far back as the
early 1970s conservative, middle-class portrayal
of “American society” as a victim in need of res-
cue, assaulted at once by the blind giant of state
militarism, the intimate betrayals of rebellious
youth, and emerging structural cracks in the
bedrock of New Deal social protections; but Si-
mon’s argument goes even further to illuminate
the governmental logic of how penal state
power also became tethered to populist conser-
vative rhetoric, interweaving the moralistic talk
of crime as the warp and woof of civil society.
Latin American scholars have presented in-
teresting parallels with Simon’s thesis in their
ethnographic research, but with a special twist.
Throughout the region, the securitization of the
prison roughly parallels the sea change in “citi-
zens’ security” taking place in society at large, a
shift in political discourse that assumes the cor-
ruption of police and the impunity of criminal
network activity. In Brazil, Bolivia, and El Sal-
20 | Chris Garces
vador (cf. Caldeira 2001; Goldstein et al. 2007;
Moodie 2010; Risør 2010), recent work demon-
strates that political-economic elites and mar-
ginalized urbanites, if anything, share one
ideological element in common: an unflappable
belief in the state’s inability to successfully po-
lice its own corruption or to protect its own cit-
izens from crime and physical assault. Latin
American urbanites’ consensus that crime is
now the primary threat to state sovereignty has
indeed, in recent years, given rise to a discourse
of security as the proper domain of citizens’ in-
terests qua the guarantees and protections of
state citizenship (Goldstein 2010). New mana-
gerial experts wielding a discourse of security
and technoscientific know-how have also en-
trenched themselves as a legitimate policy-
making class (e.g., Salle 2006: 30; Nuñez Vega
2011). And growing numbers of NGOs, includ-
ing “paramunicipal” security corporations, now
respond to this breach in civil confidence by of-
fering logistical and material support to state
police and private enterprises (e.g., Krupa 2010).
As I have mentioned, such auxiliary organiza-
tions that supposedly channel and regularize in-
stitutionalized corruption have formed the back-
bone of Ecuador’s fledgling prison-industrial
complex, seeking new ways to safeguard the
frictionless flow of capital and to manage the
working-class youth of towns and cities through
their preemptive capture and neutralization.
Simultaneously, the very architecture of state
custody is shifting to accommodate these crime-
fighting expectations and demands. The prison
discourse of maximum security in Ecuador
now shares a family resemblance with the strat-
egy of punitive containment in US supermax fa-
cilities, where inmates are held in conditions of
23+ hours a day lockdown and isolation from
the general population. In the United States, it is
a matter of public record that supermax prisons
were used as a template for the war prisons set
up in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Ecuador’s new prison regime of maximum se-
curity mimics, yet scales downward, the US
global strategy of terror suspect capture, extra -
ordinary rendition, and indefinite detainment
in ad seg prisons (Mayer 2007). The US removal
of nonstate terror suspects from the global bat-
tlefield, along with their tragically ambiguous
juridical status as “unlawful enemy combatants”,
has come in for no small amount of critique
over the last decade (see De Genova and Peutz
2010 for a variety of ethnographic perspectives
on the issue). The military base at Guantanamo
Bay remains merely the tip of the iceberg—the
most visible example of a global penal system
wedded to a US-led state of exception with in-
ternational reach. Across the world’s black sites,
which have gained this name due to their un-
known locations, the identity of untold num-
bers of US detainees amounted to a secret of
state before the Obama administration purport-
edly shut them down; as is already known, mul-
tiple forms of extralegal persuasion and nego-
tiation have been exercised in such war prisons
in order to extract information critical to the
progress of global counterinsurgency (Danner
A recent report by the Open Society Foun-
dation (2013) has catalogued the collaboration
of 54 countries with the United States’ interna-
tional detention program, along with at least
136 known individuals subjected to this form of
capture and experimental custody; a great deal
has been made of the prevalence of torture in
these interrogation sites, an established fact that
I wish neither to challenge nor to revisit anew.
Yet what concerns me most about this US/
Ecuadorian comparison is the ease with which
new legal barriers to prisoners’ defense have be-
come technologies of juridical capture trans-
ferred between the far-flung prisons of the global
war on terror and those of the inter-American
war on drugs. The national public defenders’ and
human rights community’s curtailed or elimi-
nated access to these ad seg facilities, and the
absolute power of executive command exer-
cised within them, lends itself to prison abuses
fundamentally “beyond the law” (ibid.: 7–10).
The Ecuadorian prison situation certainly falls
at an oblique angle to the United States’ war on
terror, with the great majority of prisoners be-
ing held in custody on drug-running charges.
However, Ecuador’s recent embrace of the dis-
course of maximum security has led to the de-
Ecuador’s “black site”: On prison securitization and its zones of legal silence | 21
velopment of entire prisons dedicated to ad seg,
which, in addition to relocating select inmates
into segregated wings or facilities, also gives rise
to the shocking absence of legal transparency de
rigueur across these cellblocks and fortified
complexes—a juridical problem more or less
symmetrical to the emerging critique of securi-
tized counterterror detention practices across
the planet.
Access to Ecuador’s maximum-security fa-
cilities is virtually barred to outsiders, or heav-
ily restricted with bureaucratic red tape and
endless deferred promises of greater openness.
My article follows other anthropological proj-
ects (Gill 2000; Lutz 2002) in improvising new
ethnographic strategies to carry out research
within a security state unfriendly to any kind of
investigation not undertaken by paid experts or
insider advocates; the denial of access to these
heavily securitized zones is particularly irksome
to the extent that such areas are usually those
most desperately in need of immediate evalua-
tion and comparison. It should come as no sur-
prise, for example, that my research on this
topic was delimited by lack of authorization to
carry out proper fieldwork inside La Roca. To
the extent that my only contact with the facility
happened when I tagged along as a member of
a human rights team—casting me neutrally as
an “external observer”—my only exposure to
La Roca was somewhat happenstance. This ar-
gument, however, combines my unexpected
prison encounter with media and political-eco-
nomic analysis to show how the importation of
the discourse of maximum security turns on a
technocratic game of shadows, limiting prison-
ers’ access to rule of law protections. Each ap-
proach in itself would seem insufficient to the
task of witnessing the depths to which ad seg
plunges the inmate within a sunken legal
labyrinth. Combined, however, they provide a
more robust analysis of shifting penal dynam-
ics, both inside and outside the space of the ad
seg confinement. In the process, I document the
zones of legal silence that effectively neutralize
the rights and protections of inmates deemed a
security risk to the prison’s staff and the general
population alike.
An unexpected tour
Visiting with Guayaquileño human rights
workers in 2010, I was surprised to be asked to
join them along with personnel from the Public
Defender’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) on
their official business to interview prison staff
in La Roca. At the time, La Roca was approxi-
mately one year old and already exhibiting
plenty of managerial problems. Human rights
personnel correctly assumed that I would want
to participate. Seven years earlier, with the aid
of the same organization, I carried out human
rights–based fieldwork in the Penitenciaría del
Litoral—then and still Ecuador’s largest prison—
on a series of protests that inmates waged suc-
cessfully against the unlawful imprisonment of
individuals who had already served their time
or who never received a sentence to begin with
(Garces 2010). My intention was to catch up with
old colleagues, and perhaps to learn what had
transpired behind the Penitenciaría’s walls in the
meantime. Instead, I found myself scrunched
into a car driving 30 minutes in the reverse morn-
ing commute to this imposing new prison com-
plex, built directly adjacent to the Penitenciaría.
The biggest surprise of the morning, however—
given our heavyweight legal company—was that
we were turned away at the gate.
“We haven’t seen your request [to visit],” the
prison guard said, with a flat and uninviting af-
fect. We all stood around for what seemed like a
minute. Indignant and not knowing what to do
with themselves, our delegation of human rights
workers filmed an interview with the state de-
fense lawyers about their unexpected banish-
ment from the complex. Some tried to peek
across the gate when police vehicles passed
through; others endeavored, hard as they might,
to speak across the mirrored windows of the
guards’ office, inviting their dialogue or recog-
nition. Cars and buses sped by on Rio Daule
highway at top speed, kicking up dust and mak-
ing it difficult for us to communicate. Thus, the
prisoners’ state of architectural and juridical iso-
lation was momentarily “our own” as we sought
to investigate the rules and conditions govern-
ing prison life on the inside (cf. Jefferson 2012).
22 | Chris Garces
In actuality, the Defensoría del Pueblo had
indeed notified La Roca’s administration about
its plans to visit inmates the day before—a
proposition legally within the right of any state
supervisorial body, given a 24-hour notice. It
was not the first time Ecuadorian defense
lawyers had been denied access to their clients
legally permitted by penal code. Most public
defenders I met with were quick to decry these
verbal invitations to visit La Roca, and outright
rejections at the front gate. The director of a
major human rights organization in Guayaquil—
a local NGO allied with the Inter-American
Commission—averred that over the course of
the last year, legal watchdog groups had talked
with prisoners on merely one occasion. This
particular failed visit was intended to be the De-
fensoría del Pueblo’s second, and the human
rights committee’s very first.
And I confess: I quickly forgot about our
failed excursion to La Roca. But a week later my
phone rang at 8:00 AM—the same personnel had
received an invitation from the prison director
himself. And off we drove again.
This time our delegation met with no obsta-
cles. Passing across the external checkpoint, we
were obligated to walk through a metal detec-
tor, individually patted down in a quick body
frisk, and told to make our way to the facility.
The external gate and the prison itself are lo-
cated perhaps 1,500 meters apart on a road lined
with a towering cyclone fence and high-voltage
electric wires—the only passage into or out of
the complex. A hulking, windowless mass of
concrete, the prison’s architecture projects an
air of impregnable solidity. Marcelino—a high-
ranking member of the Defensoría del Pueblo—
knocked on the facility’s only door, a large steel
portal with no visitors’ instructions, for what
seemed like ten minutes under the blazing trop-
ical sun. Finally, guards opened the door and let
us all in as if we had just arrived. Ushered into a
dimly lit and humid checkpoint abounding with
surveillance technology, I noticed a sign to the
left reading, “The center’s security is your secu-
rity” and wondered what I had invited upon my-
self by entering this place. I have been processed
through many of the security world’s traditional
rites of passage, whether in airport checkpoints,
border crossings, local courts, or state prisons.
Yet this procedure far outstripped anything I
had come to know. Each visitor was patted down,
was made to have his or her mouth X-rayed and
his or her arse X-rayed, and was processed
through the denuding surveillance of a back -
scatter imaging machine (four quarter turns in
front of a Rapiscan detector that penetrated
right through your clothes). Later I would learn
that certain female visitors were additionally
subjected to hands-on body cavity searches (for
being principal suspects in gun-smuggling ef-
forts on the inside)—an unhappy fact I will de-
scribe below.
Passing one security gate after another, we
entered the administrative section and were es-
corted by guards to the director’s office. Andrés
gave an air of easy bureaucratic competence,
mellifluously swallowing his vowels, despite the
fact that he was assigned his post only a month
before and was, in his own words, “learning on
the job.” The director was cordial to a fault in
explaining that we could not directly communi-
cate with his wards, except for one hand-picked
prisoner, because of federal rules regulating
inmate contact with nonfamily members. No
exceptions could possibly be made. “I take di-
rections from my superior in all juridical mat-
ters,” he explained. “I’m not the person who you
should ask [for a more open-ended visit], but
rather the institution.” The recourse to displac-
ing one’s agency to one’s superiors, and to
claiming powerlessness from a position of di-
rect bureaucratic command, was in full effect.
Yet Andrés clearly positivized his role as prison
director, focusing our conversation on what he
could accomplish during his time as the prison’s
chief executive. In his own words, the prison’s
system of “asylum” embraced the practice of ex-
treme segregation in order to promote rehabili-
tation. This new penal regime demanded a sea
change not only in the treatment of prisoners,
but also in the everyday regulation of prison
staff. For Andrés, the key component to any sys-
tematic prison reform lay with the proper com-
portment of guards “who live with the inmates,”
and “who know the[ir] … truths.” But there was
Ecuador’s “black site”: On prison securitization and its zones of legal silence | 23
also, he claimed, a “gap” in the guard’s comport-
ment—a lack of uniform training (formación)
in the task of providing security as a form of
When asked whether prisoners relocated to
his prison had ever been transferred back to
medium-security facilities, the director admit-
ted that none so far had returned to the general
population; what is more, he quite often blocked
other directors’ requests to admit their own
trouble prisoners. Those who did arrive in La
Roca were scheduled to remain until the com-
pletion of their sentence. Being transferred into
maximum security was a one-way ticket. But
Andrés argued in favor of this arrangement be-
cause “maximum security isn’t maximum pun-
ishment.” He also gave unimpeachable examples
to back up his claims. For example, the presi-
dent of García Moreno prison’s Inmates Com-
mittee, a nationally recognized legal entity in
the capitol city of Quito, had fallen out of favor
with his prison director. The director put in a
formal request with the Ministry of Social Re-
habilitation (Dirección Nacional de Rehabil-
itación Social, DNRS) to have him transferred
to La Roca. However, Andrés refused to accept
the DNRS’s transfer request on the basis that al-
lowing it would turn La Roca into a space for
institutional reprisals or the exercise of prison
system vendettas. He also claimed that his great-
est hope was to give Ecuadorian society “a
prison for true rehabilitation.” When asked about
the prisoners’ therapeutic treatment, Andrés de-
murred and said it was in the process of being
organized. When defense lawyers wanted to
know what criteria might count as evidence of
a prisoner’s “dangerousness,” he effectively
dodged the question, claiming “there is a great
deal to do here, a great deal … [and] I believe
we are on the right path.”
Responding to these questions, he redirected
our attention to La Roca’s custodial regulations.
Eight groups of ten prisoners “divided into affin-
ity groups” (i.e., groups with no rival gang mem-
bers or personal enemies) were given 1.5 hours
per day in a common patio. Still, patio liberties
could be restricted or withheld for a prisoner’s
lack of cooperation with the guards. The human
rights workers among our delegation explained
to Andrés that informal conversations with
prisoners’ relatives on the outside signaled that
severely limited access to common spaces was
the norm rather than the exception inside. The
director immediately shrugged off the allega-
tion. According to him, sanctions against pris-
oners were typically meted out in frequency of
visits and the availability of psychological ther-
apy. When human rights workers countered that
prisoners’ friends and family members were
complaining that guards included the time being
processed across the security controls as part of
their “visit,” Andrés replied that family members
always exaggerate about their own treatment.
Andrés’s first action as director, he said, was
to address inmates’ complaints about their food.
When he arrived, the meals were still being pre-
pared at the Penitenciaría and delivered three
times a day to La Roca. As I knew from previ-
ous research inside the Penitenciaría, nobody
except the poorest inmates—or those with no
cellblock mafia connections or external assis-
tance—took their meals exclusively from the
prison kitchen. In La Roca, family visits were
less frequent, and no one could fully provision
their loved ones. The result of this situation was
what Andrés disparagingly called the obligation
to eat “prison food.” “There are things you have
to learn along the way,” he said. I wondered
about the extent to which prison directors could
use such a logic of deferred accomplishment to
engage repeatedly in penal policy “false starts”,
or self-serving managerial experiments, doomed
to failure, and get away with it. I remember
thinking, How, at any rate, could Andrés not fall
into this managerial trap, as a first-time prison
director with no on-the-job experience—even if
he was well-intentioned?
In his administrative-managerial speech,
Andrés sought to implement measures—on a
case-by-case basis—to improve prison labor
and living conditions for those who share space
on the inside. Yet in a context of ad seg confine-
ment—the absolute endpoint of inmates’ free-
dom—those who were being detained were akin
to human products being manipulated to pro-
duce desired administrative effects. Our inter-
24 | Chris Garces
view drawing to a close, the director welcomed
us to take a guided tour of the complex led by a
prison guard. Barred from entering La Roca’s
cellblock, we were still free to visit other parts of
the facility at our own discretion. We expressed
our gratitude about his openness. But forebod-
ing signs appeared almost immediately. On
leaving the administrative section, we noticed
blood on the ground in a hallway and asked our
guard where it came from. We were told a staff
member had a bloody nose.
On this quick 30-minute tour of the prison
complex, we were taken first to the control
room—a classic panoptical structure, embed-
ded in the middle of the cellblock, with win-
dows overlooking a panorama of cells and video
monitors lining the remaining surface areas. The
scene was rather humdrum—watching prison-
ers pace up and down the patio area—until a
member of our delegation noticed a few of them
holding their shirts up to their noses and
queried the guards about it. At this point, we
were told to keep moving on our tour of the fa-
cility, and were led to stairs that spiraled upward
to a rooftop platform overlooking the cellblock.
Upstairs, we encountered a group of armed
guards who immediately complained to our le-
gal personnel about their hazardous work con-
ditions, substandard armaments, and low rate
of pay. But prisoners were clearly shouting and
upset in the background, too.
In a few short seconds our group began to
notice a horribly acrid smell. Tear gas canisters
had somehow been dropped from the rooftop
into the prisoners’ common patio, and the in-
mates were making a racket. I found myself
nearly blinded, and our whole group was stand-
ing far outside and above the prisoner’s cell-
block area. This confusing scene carried on for
several minutes, during which time it was
nearly impossible to make out particular voices.
When we could marginally discern a prisoner’s
words, he was usually telling us his name and
imploring us to contact a lawyer—claiming that
his rights were being violated. At a distance
from the cellblock, we could still discern that
guards were lifting up and carrying away a pris-
oner’s limp body.
Walking across the rooftop to the edge of an-
other patio—the prisoners’ only point of access
to open air—we spotted five persons availing
themselves of their allotment of time in the sun.
On seeing us converge above and around them,
they shouted that prison guards were in the
habit of shooting tear gas into the cellblock at
the slightest provocation. “It’s our daily bread,”
one of them explained. At some point, prison
guards carried a nearly unconscious body into
the middle of the courtyard and literally dumped
him there. After spitting uncontrollably for sev-
eral minutes, the prisoner looked up and gave
us his name and other personal information.
There were additional remonstrations about
lack of human rights. One prisoner claimed that
he already had served 33 months on a 24-month
sentence; others confirmed that several prison-
ers in the facility were living under similarly
ambiguous conditions (what I refer to elsewhere
as being a “juridical hostage” [Garces 2010])—
including one who chimed in about serving his
fifth year on a two-year sentence. Before he was
transferred to La Roca from the Penitenciaría,
another prisoner claimed he was ordered out-
side for a group roll call “evaluation,” during
which time he was fingered by another inmate
as a leading member of a prison gang (banda).
“I’ve never even killed a chicken,” he protested.
Yet here he was, living under a regime that de-
nied all his customary liberties as a prisoner for
being suspected of shadow hierarchy collusion.
Recognizing there was no way for us to verify
his claim, we moved back downstairs to speak
with the director about the use of tear gas and
the prisoners’ cacophonous response.
Inside his office, Andrés argued that the new
prison was still influenced by the Penitenciaría.
What’s more, he suggested that we think about
the tear gas incident “using counterintelli-
gence.” The internal report he was given stated
that a single member of his guard accidentally
dropped a tear gas canister during our visit right
before we walked upstairs. “Just a coincidence?”
he asked. In all likelihood, he claimed, a pris-
oner paid off the guard to gas them knowing
that our delegation would further investigate
“irregularities”—in effect, fabricating prison
Ecuador’s “black site”: On prison securitization and its zones of legal silence | 25
mistreatment in order to stimulate a legal proc -
ess or human rights commission.
The director’s words were both compelling,
brazen, and—in my opinion—entirely given
over to an institutional logic that denied any
semblance of accountability. All possible blame
for “irregularities” was placed on the shoulders
of prisoners and low-ranking prison guards.
The regime of penal truths could never in any
case be verified or denied—only ambiguously
taken into account. When asked about a shoot-
ing that took place inside La Roca only two
months prior, Andrés suggested that the
shooter himself, or a close associate, might have
commissioned the “attempted murder” so that
the victim would be judged a custody risk and
relocated to another prison facility where his
own associates operated with impunity. Mem-
bers of the Defensoría del Pueblo sat upright in
their seats and looked flummoxed, but agreed
that his educated “counterintelligence” guess
wasn’t entirely implausible. The director went
on to adumbrate the custodial dilemmas he
faced in carrying out his duties: “a prison with-
out employees who are satisfied with the condi-
tions of their labor will never be ‘secure’.” The
guards—nearly all of them—were privately ask-
ing to be transferred to other carceral complexes.
“It’s a [great] prize to be relocated [to a prison
with mafia kickbacks (see Nuñez Vega 2006)],
and they’ll do whatever they can to generate a
change of scenery.” Later in the afternoon, we
argued among ourselves on the drive back to
Guayaquil whether an Ecuadorian maximum-
security prison was a time bomb waiting to
explode. In the final analysis, we couldn’t un-
derstand precisely what we had observed at the
prison. Worse yet, our delegation had little basis
on which to assess the director’s claims.
What seemed undeniable, however, was that
our limited access to prisoners and their living
conditions exercised multiple negative effects.
Legal personnel were denied the kind of sus-
tained, firsthand encounters that could verify
structural phenomena beyond what the prison-
ers had managed—via extraordinary means—
to convey to them. Follow-up visits barred, the
human rights or defense lawyer is forced into
the position of relying on the administration’s
claims. Yet even minimal firsthand exposure to
maximum-security practices reveals a yawning
gap between administrative rhetoric and the
claims of prisoners and guards. While my visit
highlighted conversations between the director
and human rights workers, along with the
predicament of prisoners themselves, media
analysis reveals another side of the institution of
(super)maximum security, where the mediating
agent of La Roca is instead the figure of the
prison guard.
“Zones of legal silence”
The Centro de Rehabilitación Social Numero 2
(CRS-2) is located seventeen kilometers beyond
Guayaquil’s city limits, adjacent to the Peniten-
ciaría del Litoral. Popularly named La Roca
(The Rock)—perhaps for Alcatraz, the now de-
commissioned US prison island famous for
housing the most “uncontrollable” subjects, or
maybe after the 1996 Hollywood movie, quite
popular in Ecuador, about the extrajudicial
fight against homegrown terrorists—CRS-2’s
inmates are at any rate presently entangled in a
penal state challenged from within and without.
The split-level physical structure of CRS-2 houses
up to 152 prisoners (divided across two separate
floors) placed in single- or double-occupancy
cells. Ringed by two perimeter walls and bol-
stered inside and out with reinforced concrete,
the building is also topped with razor wire and
high-voltage cables.
Prisoners living in La Roca have been segre-
gated from the general population to an un-
precedented degree: all those unfortunate
enough to be transferred here—whether or not
they merit(ed) their relocation—have been (1)
prevented from circulation among other pris-
oners; (2) restricted from their weekly access to
spouses, friends, and relatives; (3) denied cus-
tomary liberties to leave their cells or to access
common patios; and (4) monitored 24 hours a
day with greater surveillance, even in their most
intimate spaces and moments. When Ecua dor -
ian technocrats attempted to build public sup-
26 | Chris Garces
port for this model prison, they lauded a new
penal ideal of “a video camera for every cell.” (El
Universo 2010a, El Telegrafo 2010a) Having spo-
ken with La Roca control room operators and
surveyed their equipment, the initial claim in
retrospect seems exaggerated; but with scores of
videos rolling at once, low-functioning prison
personnel claim that they have a camera record-
ing and keeping watch on several inmates at any
Though the prison had been operational for
less than two years when I visited it, teams of
lawyers and human rights workers had man-
aged to gain access on merely two occasions and
interviewed prisoners but once. My own visit,
described above, was the second of such suc-
cessful legal delegations. The penal regime that
La Roca inaugurated cannot be studied by out-
siders or noncontracted penologists. It is hence
too early to draw full conclusions about the ef-
fects of La Roca, or its novel custodial use of
maximum-security as the raison d’être for con-
fining the “worst of the worst” in supermax
conditions. Yet preliminarily, one still can trace
institutional developments—both internal and
external to the Ecuadorian prison system—that
have conditioned La Roca’s operations.
CRS-2 opened its doors on 24 July 2010. But
municipal technocrats developed the architec-
tural model for it back in 2005, when the mayor
of Guayaquil, Jaime Nebot, together with his
counselors, authorized prison management
“specialists” to develop strategies for mitigating
overcrowding in the Penitenciaría del Litoral.
The latter prison had by that time gained a
wide spread national reputation for unchecked
drug mafia impunity, administrative corrup-
tion, and spectacular inmate protests. In his
own words, Nebot sought to create a new car-
ceral space that would “separate the contrarian
from the true delinquent” (El Comercio 2005).
The mayor’s office commissioned the municipal
Chamber of Commerce to work alongside a
special, Guayaquil-based private foundation—
the Corporation for Citizen Security—in order
to subsidize a model prison that would concen-
trate and isolate the most dangerous elements
residing in the Penitenciaría. The initial con-
struction was valued at $1.5 million, but would
amount to $1.8 by its completion.
Almost immediately, El Universo and other
major newspapers began to publish investiga-
tive reports bearing titles such as “Penitenciaría
Officials Indicate That At Least One Hundred
Prisoners Are Psychopaths,” accompanied by
administrators’ earnest, pragmatic testimony,
including the claim that “psychopathological
prisoners could easily be fingered, because their
[very] life is doing harm to others. They suffer
from an irreversible illness and require special
treatment” (El Telegrafo 2008). According to a
paid Chilean prison consultant, Ecuador’s facil-
ities had turned into a “university of crime” (El
Universo 2007a) The official assessment merely
repeated what was already known among
Guayaquil’s human rights organizations: that is,
that the Penitenciaría del Litoral was already
enveloped in shadow hierarchy coercion and
largely unaccountable to the state. Various
“gangs” ruled everyday life on the inside, and
cellblocks organized into shadow hierarchies
influenced most aspects of prisoner custody.
Prison guards were directly implicated in the
breakdown of Penitenciaría security. Poorly
paid and institutionally demoralized, these low-
ranking staff nevertheless served as key inter-
mediaries between the administration and the
informal cellblock leadership. A habitual short-
age of these low-ranking staff only increased
the power of cellblock mafia to exercise coer-
cive force over prisoners and even their warders
on the inside. The role of the guard had deteri-
orated to such an extent that, by early 2011, all
who performed this role across the nation’s cor-
rectional facilities were subject to police investi-
gations and formal retraining. The same year,
nearly 30 percent were dismissed from their
positions for being caught up in black market
activities, acting as intermediaries with the pris-
oners’ external collaborators (Expreso 2011a,
2011b; El Universo 2011a). All the while, Ecua -
dor’s prisoners vociferously decried the culture
of extortion and violence they suffered at the
hands of the guard-mafia alliance.
At no other time had the cellblock mafias’
coercive grip on the prison system grown more
Ecuador’s “black site”: On prison securitization and its zones of legal silence | 27
apparent than in 2006 and 2007, when two
prison directors were assassinated at the hands
of sicarios sent by cellblock leaders threatened
with administrative attempts to curb their influ-
ence. Both execution-style events took place
outside the Penitenciaría. In response to the
second, the DNRS’s internal investigations
failed to verify how many prisoners were even
housed in the Penitenciaría, much less to iden-
tify those who had ordered the killings. The
ministry quickly arranged for a census of the
national prison population as a whole. Hence,
for the first time prison administrators began to
formally identify the “level” of their wards’
“risk”, that is, “to gain knowledge about the pris-
oners who comprised the prison population,
their [respective] danger-levels and their legal
status” (Expreso 2007), segregating select indi-
viduals and preempting the consolidation of
cellblock mafia power.
With Penitenciaría overcrowding at nearly
300 percent above max capacity and the situa-
tion fast deteriorating in other national deten-
tion centers, Ecuador’s federal government
decreed in May 2007 a state of emergency for
the prison system as a whole. The order had im-
mediate political-economic and legal conse-
quences. Since building prisons was no longer
restricted by their high price tags—or compet-
ing national and/or regional funding interests—
the DNRS inaugurated construction on six new
facilities. The budgetary allotment for the Peni-
tenciaría del Litoral included new minimum-,
medium-, and maximum-security wings—
where “maximum” units approximated the
“super max” conditions of administrative segre-
gation in other global prisons (Ross 2013). But
a new prison experiment, dedicated to housing
the most intransigent inmates in permanent
lockdown, was built directly adjacent to the
Penitenciaría’s grounds—CRS-2. The impetus
to build La Roca, already far along in planning
stages when the emergency period was decreed,
was pushed through all red tape in spite of the
DNRS’s reservations about its private subsidiza-
tion and ambiguous charter. La Roca was thus
midwifed into existence between emergency
politics and bureaucratic expediency, becoming
one of the very first Ecuadorian construction
projects immediately born of securitized puni-
tive containment.
The rules of operation for La Roca were not
made available to the public during its first five
months. The regular visitas typically enjoyed by
prisoners (when spouses, children, friends, and
relatives visited their loved ones)—an institu-
tion not just normalized, but institutionally
necessary for the subsistence of prisoners un-
derfunded by the state—were severely delim-
ited. According to relatives’ testimony, the food
served on the inside was poorly prepared, and
the inmates had been given merely one set of
clothes. The private companies that won con-
tracts to administer the prison, and that served
bureaucrats as a model for private-public prison
governance, were found incompetent from the
outset. Nevertheless, the “interinstitutional”
identity of these foundations—legally neither
private nor public, but an amalgamation of elite
moneyed and select public interests—appeared
to delimit their will to protect inmates’ civil
Even Rafael Correa, the president of Ecua -
dor—locked in a regionalist fight against Jaime
Nebot’s mayoral influence in Guayaquil—de-
nounced the new penal model that La Roca rep-
resented just a few weeks before the facility’s
inauguration, calling it “a windowless bunker,
with no [exposure to natural] light, good only
for burying [people] alive” (El Hoy 2008). The
minister of justice also expressed grave reserva-
tions about the capacity of La Roca to protect
the rights of those scheduled to be stripped of
their customary liberties in the general popula-
tion. The construction site lay abandoned for
nearly three months as the government and
municipal authorities debated its regulatory
mechanisms. But the new facility would eventu-
ally spring to life when backroom conversations
broke the federal government’s resolve; as the
minister of justice protested, “They’ve done a
stupendous job building a prison in terms of
maximum security, but rehabilitation is [quite
simply] missing” (El Universo 2008a).
The DNRS, however, seized control of the
new prison shortly before its inauguration—a
28 | Chris Garces
great scandal to local municipal bureaucrats in
Guayaquil. Federal administrators promised to
respect the intentions of the NGOs that finan-
cially brought La Roca from being a mere idea
to a concrete facility. In the promotional mate-
rials of the Corporation for Citizen Security,
this meant providing “a contrast with the actual
system [of the Penitenciaría del Litoral] that
threatens prisoners’ human rights and the secu-
rity of citizens.” (El Universo 2008b)
But mu-
nicipal authorities also struggled against the
central government’s regulation of La Roca, es-
pecially when the DNRS approved the transfer
of scores of prisoners from Quito’s largest
prison, García Moreno. The municipal tech-
nocrats and moneyed elite behind the Corpora-
tion for Citizen Security had envisioned La
Roca as an auxiliary to the Penitenciaría—a re-
lease valve of sorts that would depressurize nor-
malized conditions of prison overcrowding and
mafia rule. In the highland capitol of Quito,
DNRS officials claimed that prisoners reas-
signed to La Roca had been apprehended in
Guayaquil and were simply being returned to
their hometown or place of arrest—an argu-
ment that falsely borrowed from the logic of un-
derfunded medium-security prison facilities.
Just as “open” competitions for private con-
tracts were publicly announced yet evaluated
behind closed doors, La Roca’s officials system-
atically kept the Ecuadorian public in the dark
about the prison’s regulations or happenings on
the inside. Inmates were not informed why they
were selected for relocation and subjected to
unfamiliar, isolating penalization. The new
prisoners’ family members stood vigil outside
La Roca, burning tires, staging blockades of the
highway, and generally agitating to make the
living conditions of their loved ones publicly
known. A campaign waged by YouTube clips
aimed to expose “Ecuador’s Guantanamo”.
Ironically, however, the same carceral dy-
namic of life-threatening abuse and corruption
that marked life inside the Penitenciaría quickly
began to appear in La Roca. To start with, the
prison’s security equipment proved less effective
than officials had ideally hoped. Time and again,
prisoners inside La Roca managed to procure
firearms. William Póveda, alias “the Cuban”
(the author of a Penitenciaría director’s assassi-
nation, and arguably the most reviled inmate in
Ecuador’s prison system), was shot at near-
point blank range on two occasions inside La
Roca—surviving each attempt on his life. When
the first shooting occurred on 28 January 2010,
the minister of justice tried to explain it away,
noting that the attack happened one day before
full body scanning machines were installed in
La Roca—X-ray surveillance, he argued, that
could prevent such “irregularities.” The prison-
ers were getting in their last shot at deadly force
while they could.
When six months later Póveda was shot at
again—this time saved by his incarcerated
brother, Walter, alias “the Caiman”, who took
his bullet and likewise survived—the minister
made no show of justifying how a gun was
smuggled inside. After both attempts, however,
female spouses of prisoners who visited their
husbands were charged with helping to facili-
tate an attempted murder (El Universo 2011b).
These women were circumstantially suspected
of secreting the components of semiautomatic
handguns, piece by piece, inside their private
parts, over 15-day intervals—following La
Roca’s schedule for conjugal visits. A crackdown
ensued against female visitors at the security fil-
ters, where a select few were regularly asked by
prison guards to submit to body cavity searches.
Every time the security filters broke down—
that is, every time a prisoner managed to wield
a firearm—public authorities demanded an in-
vestigation into the assailant’s suspected collab-
oration with prison guards. The DNRS director
ordered all guard personnel to be evaluated and
requalified in order to keep their jobs, and even
temporarily militarized the nation’s prisons,
with police and armed forces assuming cus-
tody—the former charged with supervising the
inside, the latter guarding the gates and build-
ing exteriors. As is public knowledge, most
prison guards are poorly paid, live far away
from their home, carry old or outdated
weapons, and are ordered at the whim of super-
visors to work double shifts. They are likewise
made to provide for their own bulletproof vests
Ecuador’s “black site”: On prison securitization and its zones of legal silence | 29
and other kinds of body armor, basic materials
that many felt were necessary to perform their
It goes without saying that prison guards
carry out their work in a life-threatening envi-
ronment. Almost by definition, they manage
cellblocks and therefore to a certain degree col-
laborate or collude with the cellblock mafias (El
Telegrafo 2011): a relationship that places them
on a knife’s edge between the formal adminis-
tration and the prison’s shadow hierarchy. As
one ex-director put it, “I know … some [guards
who] were pursued [by mafia associates] all the
way to their homes, and their family members
were threatened if they wouldn’t help to bring
illegal goods to them inside” (El Universo 2012)
The dangers inherent to the guard’s position
are such that many consider themselves at grave
risk merely by showing up for work at the com-
plex. For example, La Roca came under attack
by unknown and heavily armed forces a few
months after the facility opened. On 3 October
2010, a group of paramilitary-style assailants
supposedly allied to certain prisoners on the in-
side partly demolished La Roca’s exterior wall
using dynamite, and when the dust settled a
firefight broke out between guards and insur-
gents. The armed intruders were pushed back,
but eight guards were critically injured in the
process. In other words, low-ranking guard per-
sonnel by definition must expose themselves to
such trauma, internalizing life-threatening dan-
ger as a routine possibility—even, and perhaps
especially, during moments that seem peace-
ful—in order to stay the course with their
The prisoners relocated to La Roca were
those most deeply implicated in the prison sys-
tem’s shadow hierarchy, that is, those who liter-
ally managed the flow of narcotics, money, and
bodies inside (and, to a certain degree, outside)
the state’s jails and prisons. La Roca was created
in order to contain mafia influence—separating
caporales from their networks, eliminating their
extraordinary privileges, and providing 24-
hour surveillance in cellblock pavilions. Yet La
Roca’s cellblock inspections may illustrate how
the same shadow economy and culture of vio-
lence has flourished in spite of these advanced
custodial measures. The best example is that of
Oscar Carranqui. Journalists described this ma-
jor drug trafficker’s previous cell in García
Moreno prison as “five-star quality”; the police
had discovered not only “expensive curtains,
marble floors, televisions, [and] jewelry,” but
also “a hidden cabinet in a piece of furniture
built into the wall” that stored “a [laptop] com-
puter, a USB modem, a revolver with five rounds
in the chamber, two Blackberry cell phones, and
a professional-grade voice recorder” (Expreso
2010). While living in La Roca, Carranqui still
enjoyed a variety of clandestine privileges.
When conjugal visits were suspended after the
first attempt on the Cubano’s life, for example,
personnel still allowed Carranqui’s spouse to
visit on the normal schedule.
Moreover, police inspections of La Roca dur-
ing 2010–2011 turned up plenty of otherwise il-
licit materials, including “cell phones, arms,
nails, wire, kitchenettes, refrigerators, [and] tel-
evisions, among other things” (El Universo
2010b) The presence of high-status commodi-
ties clearly indicated the existence of the same
black market dynamics that operated, and con-
tinues to operate, inside the Penitenciaría del
Litoral. In other words, cellblock mafia influ-
ence may have been scaled back, yet by no
means was it eliminated. Such irregularities di-
rectly implicated the collaboration of prison
guards. Expensive security equipment and the
promise of high-tech surveillance—multiple
body scanning devices, digital modules to iden-
tify biogenetic markers, and so forth—were not
sufficient to dissolve the guard-mafia alliance.
As I wrote this article, yet another prisoner—
alias “el Negro José”—was shot and killed by a
fellow inmate (in revenge, he claimed, for an-
other murder) the day before the victim was
scheduled for a release hearing. Much like the
second assassination attempt on William Pó -
veda, security personnel were unable to locate
and decommission the discharged firearm.
The rules governing La Roca were made
public in mid-2011. But federal standards for
relocating prisoners to La Roca continue to re-
main cloudy. The new regime of maximum se-
30 | Chris Garces
curity (previously restricted to specific cell-
blocks in the country’s largest prisons) had been
implemented to protect against “threats” to the
smooth functioning of national rehabilitation
centers. The prison mafia’s coercive reach out-
side the prison—undeniable after two prison
directors were murdered—was a sufficient na-
tional executive motive for calling a state of
emergency in the prison system. The emergency
period’s raison d’être was to separate mafia ca-
pos from their network associates. In precisely
this sense, La Roca owes its institutional con-
ditions of existence to the Penitenciaría del
Litoral’s mid-2000s security crisis.
Yet this new prison clearly reproduced most
of the informal mechanisms that governed life
inside the Penitenciaría. Cellblock shadow hier-
archy power had not been eliminated across La
Roca. On the contrary, I would suggest that
Ecuador’s prison system added a powerful new
mechanism for the strengthening of formal and
informal penal state unaccountability. As was
signaled in the country’s newspapers, the mere
presence of a prison dedicated entirely to peel-
ing back inmates’ layered civil rights has exer-
cised a number of undeniable effects on the
relationship between cellblock hierarchies and
the prison administration. Nationwide, prison
directors can now utilize the open threat of re-
location to La Roca in order to ensure inmates
they view as particularly dangerous, including
the leaders of incarcerated mafia, remain
squarely under their command. As one such in-
mate anonymously reported to a journalist well
before the inauguration of La Roca, “Some of
the prisoners here have already handed over
their guns a few weeks ago to avoid being sent
to the maximum-security prison” (El Universo
Clearly, national prison officials must do
everything within their powers to guarantee a
system of social rehabilitation; there is no pos-
sible context in which firearms should make
their way into their wards’ hands. The potential
for unharnessing the prison directors’ coercive
powers—and holding them nearly unaccount-
able—is raised in this prisoner’s anonymous
comment. The comment also reveals shifting
zones of legal silence within the discourse on
maximum security. While cellblock mafias may
continue to operate in shadow hierarchies, the
prison directors now have more say in how they
do, or do not, exercise such penal state power.
The possibility of finding oneself stripped of
civil rights is lamentably a sign of the times,
nationally and globally. Inside Ecuadorian pris-
ons, the reality of blackmail, torture, and phys -
ical subjugation is both lived and commonly
lamented among prisoners and staff alike. But
in La Roca and other sites of maximum security
emerging across the global South, all of the
nightmares of civil erasure come together; every-
one—prisoner, guard, and administrator—who
makes contact with this hidden core of punitive
containment deserves more recognition and le-
gal protection. Yet La Roca is merely one, semi-
visible peak in a new topographical arrange-
ment of penal power that has been laid down
across Ecuador and Latin America as a whole.
The 2008 emergency period inaugurated a
considerably deeper set of legal mechanisms
that affected Ecuadorian prisoners, and kept
them hidden from the public eye. My argument
has employed political-economic and media
analysis to describe the penal regime surround-
ing La Roca and its culture of secrecy.
There is an extent to which I literally backed
into Ecuador’s private world of supermax-style
confinement. By using the expression “backed
into”, however, I do not want to suggest that my
prison encounter happened against my will.
Rather, my contingent and unexpected access to
the new prison regime has led me to believe that
any outsider’s understanding of the experience
of advanced custodial measures, at least in the
Ecuadorian context, has been severely compro-
mised by draconian legal restrictions and mul-
tiple veils of institutional secrecy. Prison ad-
ministrations keep inmate living conditions in
administrative segregation far beyond the pur-
view of direct or sustained legal observation. In
such a context, any prison visitor will make do
Ecuador’s “black site”: On prison securitization and its zones of legal silence | 31
with compromised data, furtive scraps of infor-
mation, or details gleaned by moving as close as
possible to inmates themselves, and then ana-
lyze this modicum of understanding against in-
consistencies in prison administrators’ claims
about their wards.
The security measures taken to isolate La
Roca’s inmates have also shifted the complex
field of state and criminal forces. Ecuadorian
state and private business leaders inaugurated
maximum security incarceration in order to
segregate inmates deemed a threat to state au-
thority inside as well as outside local prisons.
Ecuador’s “prison climate” may have trans-
formed greatly in the wake of Rafael Correa’s
anti-neoliberal presidency. But changes to state
penalization have occurred unevenly, a thing of
shreds and patches sewn together haphazardly
instead of the substitution of one model for an-
other. Ultimately, I have shown how the
Ecuadorian discourse of “maximum security”
chipped off its original neoliberal matrix and
became useful again under twenty-first-century
To summarize, President Correa’s justice sys-
tem reforms have, in spite of his government’s
best intentions, stimulated the very same poli-
cies of punitive containment he successfully
campaigned against. Guayaquil is now a bell-
wether city for the broad-spectrum securitiza-
tion of urban life and the scapegoating of poor,
informal workers and young persons of color.
In the view from the Ecuadorian prison, the
challenge of critique is rather to explain untold
continuities in the transition from a neoliberal
to a popular socialist model of state punish-
ment. Similarly, I have demonstrated that
Ecuadorian “maximum security” discourse is a
truth effect generating the figure of the uncon-
trollable prisoner, a figure deeply troubling to
the smooth, uncontestable functioning of car -
ceral capitalism and penal state order.
In Ecuadorian criminal justice discourse,
“persons denied liberty” (personas privadas de
la libertad) are taken into state custody and a
different set of rights are given to them in penal
code. Inside La Roca, however, those labeled ex-
tremely dangerous have turned into experimen-
tal subjects for the dispossession of minimal
civil guarantees and state protections. Their liv-
ing conditions mirror those of the wretched
populations being held in supermax, “black
site” prisons in various parts of the world, in-
cluding most detainees being held inside today’s
war prisons. In drawing this conclusion, I am
less concerned with assessing the threat level
represented by leaders of cellblock mafias than
with documenting the birth of administrative
segregation as a new and ill-understood legal
form of punishment in Ecuador.
Not long ago, anthropologist João Biehl
(2005) introduced the concept of “zones of so-
cial abandonment” in order to show how state
police, pastoral institutions, and legal systems
across Latin America unconsciously withdraw
support for individuals who fail to live up to the
brutalizing political-economic demands of state
neoliberal transformation. In Guayaquil, Ecua -
dor, these overlapping mechanisms of dispos-
session continue to survive across prisons in
spite of state-level neosocialist attempts to curb
prison overcrowding and to break the coercive
grip of inmate shadow hierarchies. The penal
regime demonstrated by La Roca, however, ac-
tively problematizes legal access to wards of the
state and mitigates their rule of law protections.
Such “zones of legal silence” are the direct prod-
uct of punitive containment strategies and the
global development of drug war–fueled hyper-
incarceration underlying them.
I want to express my gratitude to Andrew Jeffer-
son and Tomas Martin, my good though distant
compañeros de trabajo, for helping to coax me
back into full-time prison ethnography. I also
want to thank Lorna Rhodes for her inspiration
and intellectual care, without which this discipli-
nary jump would have been next to impossible.
Chris Garces teaches in the Department of An-
thropology at Cornell University. His ethno-
graphic interests range from the study of poli-
32 | Chris Garces
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34 | Chris Garces