Ecuador police free 49 people held by gang

A handout photo of the two suspects provided by Ecuadorean police
Two suspects were detained by police [Ecuadorean police]

Police in Ecuador say they have freed 49 people who had been kidnapped by a criminal gang in the southern of the country.

Two of the suspected kidnappers were arrested during the joint raid by the Ecuadorean security forces in a mining area in Azuay province.

The powerful Los Lobos (The Wolves) gang was behind the kidnapping, police said.

Ecuador has seen a surge in gang violence in recent years as transnational criminal organisations have expanded in to the Andean country to take advantage of its large ports to export drugs.

Video released by police shows heavily armed officers entering what appears to be the tunnel of a mine.

Little information has so far been released about those freed.

An earlier post on social media by the Ecuadorean armed forces stated that there were three women among the kidnap victims.

Dynamite, weapons and ammunition were seized during the raid, security forces also said.

Los Lobos is one of the most powerful gangs in Ecuador with an estimated 8,000 members.

Originally a jail gang accused of instigating some of Ecuador's bloodiest prison riots, Los Lobos has expanded its operations and now wields considerable power outside the prison system.

Its members are involved in contract killings, kidnappings for ransom and extortion.

The gang has also forged links with the Mexican Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG), for which it smuggles cocaine from Colombia through Ecuador's port cities to the US and Europe.

Fuelled by drug money and armed by their Mexican allies, Los Lobos have become a formidable enemy for the Ecuadorean state.

In January, following a particularly bloody wave of killings and attacks, President Daniel Noboa deployed the army to try and quell the violence.

Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city and its most important port, has so far been the worst hit by gang-related violence but the raid in Azuay suggests that mining areas are now seen as lucrative targets by Los Lobos.