Ecuador’s armed forces were engaged in a brutal standoff with organized crime Thursday, deploying more than 22,400 soldiers to put down a campaign of terror waged by gangs that has claimed 16 lives. With an armed presence on the streets, patrols by land, sea and air, random body and car searches, prison raids and the enforcement of a curfew, the government of President Daniel Noboa has vowed not to yield in its “war” with 22 criminal gangs. “They wanted to instill fear, but they aroused our ire,” Defense Minister Gian Carlo Loffredo said on social media. “They believed they would subdue an entire country but forgot that the armed forces are trained for war.” Since Monday, drug cartels have been waging a bloody campaign of kidnappings and attacks in response to a government crackdown on organized crime, prompting Noboa to declare the country to be in a “state of war.” “Yield to evil: never!” the 36-year-old Noboa, in office since November, said in a video message broadcast on television Thursday. “Fight tirelessly: always!” The US State Department said Thursday that a top US military officer and senior officials will travel to Ecuador “in the coming weeks” to bolster Noboa’s fight. The small South American country has been plunged into crisis after years of growing control by transnational cartels that use its ports to ship cocaine to the United States and Europe. Criminal gangs in the country of about 17 million people are thought to have more than 20,000 members. The latest outburst of violence was sparked by the discovery Sunday of the prison escape of one of the country’s most powerful narco bosses, Jose Adolfo Macias, known by the alias “Fito.” On Monday, Noboa imposed a state of emergency and nighttime curfew, but the gangs hit back with a declaration of “war” — threatening to execute civilians and security forces. They have instigated numerous prison riots, set off explosions and torched cars in public places. By Thursday, gang members were holding 178 guards and administrative personnel hostage at several penitentiaries, according to the SNAI prison authority, which also reported ongoing riots and inmates shooting at members of the armed forces. Police said the death toll rose to 16 late Wednesday with a “terrorist” attack on a discotheque in the Amazon that claimed two lives and injured nine people. Seven police personnel have been kidnapped in recent days, though only one remains in captivity. – ‘Criminals’ time is up’ – On Tuesday, attackers wearing balaclavas stormed a state-owned TV station in the port city of Guayaquil, briefly taking staff hostage and firing shots in dramatic scenes broadcast live before police arrived. Thirteen assailants were arrested, many of them teenagers. This attack in particular gave rise to panic, with many people leaving work early and running for the safety of home. On Thursday, many shops and businesses in Ecuador’s main cities remained shuttered. “We are afraid, afraid that when least expected, they (the gangsters) will do the same thing again,” Ines Macas, a 69-year-old homemaker in Quito, told AFP. Public transport was reduced to a trickle, schools and universities closed and people urged to work from home. Terrified citizens are bombarded on a near daily basis with videos on social media of purported assassinations of members of the security forces. Police have not confirmed any executions and insist the videos are part of a disinformation campaign. – Murder rate – Hundreds of police and soldiers have been deployed in a manhunt for Fito. Officials have said another narco boss — Los Lobos leader Fabricio Colon Pico — also escaped following his arrest last Friday for alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Ecuador’s attorney general. Along with the United States, the United Nations as well as China have expressed concern and offered support to Noboa. As the drug mafia has found a foothold in Ecuador in recent years, the country’s murder rate quadrupled from 2018 to 2022. Last year was the worst yet, with 7,800 murders and a record 220 tons of drugs seized.