Colombia on high alert as authorities pursue Ecuador cartel boss

Colombia's army was on high alert over the possibility that gangsters who escaped from Ecuador's prisons, including a powerful cartel leader, could enter the country.

"There are 20 fugitives for which we are on high alert," said Colombian army chief Helder Giraldo on Friday.

Asked whether Los Choneros boss Adolfo Macias, alias "Fito," could already be on Colombian territory, he said, "it's possible."

Peru also applied similar measures and reinforced the security on its border with Ecuador.

Neighbouring Ecuador has been rocked by gang violence since the leader of the country's biggest gang, Los Choneros, escaped from prison, prompting a government crackdown on drug cartels.

The violence this week — including the on-air storming of a TV station, the hostage-taking of 178 prison staff by inmates and the kidnapping of police officers — appears to be a response by gangs to President Daniel Noboa's plans to tackle a dire security situation, the government has said.

The government has deployed troops, and soldiers are patrolling the streets after a series of explosions and armed attacks that have left at least 16 people dead in five days while scores of prisoners escaped.

The government has said operations to free hostages are underway, but there has been scant information about their status, leading to criticism by their families and unions.

"We want answers," chanted family members protesting outside the headquarters of the Cotopaxi provincial government.

"For six days, we haven't heard anything about them; we don't know if they've eaten, if they've drunk water, if they've been mistreated," said relative Monica Tito.

'Mass expulsion'

Once a bastion of peace situated between major cocaine producers, Ecuador has been plunged into crisis after years of growing control by transnational cartels that use its ports to ship the drug 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.

Colombia, the world's largest cocaine producer, fears a deterioration in border security as a result of Ecuadoran Noboa's declaration of war against the gangs.

Noboa also announced plans for the "repatriation" of 1,500 imprisoned Colombians to reduce overcrowding in Ecuador's prisons. However, Colombian President Gustavo Petro slammed the idea as a problematic "mass expulsion."

On Friday, Ecuadoran citizens began resuming normal activity in the main cities after several days of staying at home in fear. The majority of shops re-opened, and public transport resumed.