The international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) supports a prison ministry programme for priests and lay volunteer missionaries in the Archdiocese of Guayaquil, Ecuador, to care for and accompany both prisoners and their families, offering hope in the environment of insecurity that has taken over the country in recent months. 

Aleida Mejía, a lay missionary, sounds calm and composed as she speaks into the camera, despite the sounds of prisoners shouting in the background. In a steady voice she tells ACN why she decided to dedicate her life to the mission of evangelising in the prisons within the Archdiocese of Guayaquil, one of the regions most badly affected by a recent wave of violence. “The Lord has taken me to places where his Word is seldom heard, due to a lack of missionaries”, she says. 

The situation in Ecuador deteriorated in 2023, and since then has been increasingly unsustainable. Murders have increased by 69.31% over the past year. In April 2024, President Daniel Noboa declared a second state of emergency to fight the insecurity which had put life in the country on hold. With the military patrolling the streets and intervening in prisons – which negatively affected the work of the missionaries – the image was that of a country torn by civil war. The social crisis began in the main state prisons – including the regional prison in Guayaquil – and came to boiling point last January, when the inmates rioted, causing explosions, kidnappings, shootouts, looting and fires, leading to an initial state of emergency. The prison in Guayaquil was only brought under control again in April. 

“Mercy is for the hardest of hearts”

Given the situation in Ecuador, prison ministry has become more important than ever. Given the large number of prisoners – over 12,000 in only five prisons – the number of missionaries involved is negligeable, which is why ACN is supporting a programme to train more lay volunteers like Aleida, to serve in prisons within the archdiocese. The programme also includes the refurbishment of eight chapels, to guarantee the security for everybody involved.

“In this mission we have to overcome very complex obstacles”, the missionary explains. “The moment we enter the prison facilities we face many challenges. By the simple fact of walking in we are confronted with the difference between the social reality on the inside and outside; the attitude of the police, who see us as an annoying formality, and the prison guards who, like much of the rest of society, think there is no point to what we are doing”, Aleida explains. “But it is all worth it”, she adds.  

“And then there is the fear we feel ourselves”, she continues, “the fear our families feel in allowing us to be amongst the most despised people in society, all of whom are stigmatised as being disposable and filthy. But this is exactly where Jesus wants us to be because He calls us to love all His children, since we are all sinners”, Aleida says, stressing that anybody could find themselves in a similar situation. 

The criminal gangs mostly recruit young men between 15-27, often while they are in the prison system, to commit violent acts. When these young men lose hope in leading an honest life, they easily fall for the temptation of furthering their criminal “career”. 

Maria Cristina Santacruz is the archdiocesan coordinator for prison ministry in the Archdiocese of Guayaquil. She tells ACN that “here the challenge is to love the unloved, the insignificant, the unappreciated”. She also deplores the fact that “nobody believes in prison ministry. People think that this is a world that should be neglected. But the Word of God tells me that mercy is precisely for the most hardened of hearts. I have hope, and I believe that this project is the will of God.” These two missionaries are part of a team of more than 100 people, including bishops, priests, religious and lay missionaries who dedicate themselves to this mission of “offering up their lives for their brothers”, María Cristina says.  

“We have witnessed deep conversions; we have seen Christ set these souls free”

The work carried out with the prisoners includes talks and Masses, as well as workshops and courses on Christian values and faith. The mission has already borne some fruit, according to Aleida: “We have brought Jesus to these people, many of them have drawn closer to the sacraments. We have witnessed deep conversions; we have seen Christ set these souls free.” 

The programme also offers support for the families of the inmates and vocational training so that prisoners can make an honest living when they regain their freedom. “Many of these souls have already left the prison system, they are parents, and they are doing things for society”, Aleida highlights. On the other hand, she stresses the importance of “praying for this mission, so that we can continue to train these missionaries who free souls that have, until now, been captive, as mine once was. We carry the Word of God, which tells them that there is a God who loves us and who sets us free.”

María Cristina says she is deeply grateful. Firstly, to God for having “called me to this mission” and for having “shown me that it is worth it”, and then, also to ACN and to all those who generously cooperate and “believe in this mission, as I do. Here I am, Lord, to do your will, to free the captives, as He freed me”, she says, with a smile. 

ACN supports this spiritual formation project of the Archdiocese of Guayaquil, which aims to provide emotional support and spiritual formation to incarcerated adults, fostering the internal reconciliation and social reintegration so necessary for a country that is recovering from major internal conflict.