WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
15 Oct 2010 | Commentary | News

One Event, Two Views, Many Questions

At 7:30 in the morning on September 30th, members of Ecuador's police and military forces began a coordinated national-level uprising.  Among the reasons they gave for their action was discontent with legislation recently passed by the National Assembly (Ecuador's Congress).  Members of the security forces believed that the new legislation would greatly lower their salaries and benefits.  Police took to the streets in Ecuador's largest cities and began to burn tires and shout protests.

At Quito's international airport, two to three hundred airmen from the Eleventh Regiment of Ecuador's Air Force closed the airport to all incoming and outgoing flights.  Earlier in the morning, the police in charge of migration services at the airport left their posts and closed all operations.

A little before 10:00 a.m., approximately 1,200 military, police and civilians gathered at the Quito office of the Minister of Defense and demanded that the new legislation be rescinded.  The Minister attempted to persuade them that they misunderstood the law's effects.  He was met with whistles and shouts from the group as they tried to crowd into the inner courtyard of the Minister's compound.  Sharp words were exchanged and tensions remained high.

In the meantime, a larger and angrier protest was taking place at one of the police regiments, a training center, in Quito.  Thinking that all he needed to do was clear up what he believed to be a misunderstanding, President Rafael Correa went personally to the training center.  He arrived with fewer security guards than normal and entered the facility, where he addressed the crowd of protesters from a third story window.  Noise, shouts and whistles were so loud that President Correa could not be heard.  Known for his combativeness, Correa became extremely angry, tearing the top of his shirt open and shouting, "If you want to kill the President, here I am, kill me if that's what you want!"  His statements fanned the flames of the crowd's anger and members of the President's security detail became concerned that his life could be in danger.  They attempted to get him to his car.

But Correa was blocked en route to his car, and in the melee he damaged his knee, which had just undergone knee replacement surgery.  A tear gas canister exploded near his head, and once in the car the President's path was blocked by police on motorcycles.  The car was only able to reach the police hospital adjacent to the training center where he had tried to address the crowd. 

That same morning, around 9:00 a.m., police gathered in the streets in Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, which the UN considers to be among the twenty least-safe in Latin America.[2]  With no police patrolling the city or responding to calls, Guayaquil verged on chaos.  Stores were looted, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and lost goods.  Hundreds of people were mugged, some violently, while the police engaged in protests and stood by.  Multiple phone lines collapsed as parents tried to reach their children in schools across the city and as others began calling loved ones and friends to check on their safety.

Back at the National Assembly in Quito, representatives trying to enter the assembly hall to debate what was happening in the country were kept out by the special police hired to guard the legislature. It appears that they, too, were part of the national protest. 

At this point, the government decided to close all private television broadcasting; for six hours the state television feed was the only broadcast source of updates on the situation.  Groups of police attempted to pull down the station's broadcasting towers.  They were intercepted by army troops.

Police Sergeant Marco Garcia appeared on television asking his fellow officers to disband their protests and report to their regiments to decide together how best to move forward with their complaints.  Some 60 percent of the security forces discontinued their protest activities, and a few members of President Correa's cabinet attempted to negotiate with the higher ranks of the security forces.  Finally, at 2:30 p.m. the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Ernesto González, appeared on the government station confirming that the military stood behind President Correa and constitutional order. 

Back at the police hospital where Correa was being treated for asphyxiation and damage to his operated knee, the police continued their protests outside, throwing tear gas.  Things calmed down as hundreds of Correa supporters arrived outside the hospital and the protestors somewhat dispersed.  However, a group of police then appeared on motorcycles outside the hospital and began verbally attacking those in support of Correa.  They brandished their weapons and blocked any attempt on the part of Correa or his aides to leave the hospital.

At 6:00 p.m., the Minister of Policy, Doris Soliz, informed the protestors that the government was sending in the military to take the President to the Government Palace.  While hospital personnel struggled to get their seventy-two patients to areas of safety, an extended gun battle between the police and the military began outside.  Bullets were flying into the hospital and surrounding buildings.  The police continued to use state-owned equipment, such as anti-riot tanks and tear gas, against the army and against those officers from the elite branch of the police who had joined in the effort to rescue the President.  This force of military and elite police finally got the President to a car waiting outside the hospital.  As the car drove away with military personnel hanging on the outside, the police opened fire.  Although some military were killed or wounded during the rescue, the President escaped without further harm.  The firefight continued outside the hospital; the final reported toll from the day's events was ten people dead and 247 wounded. 

Unable to trust the national police and not knowing which police agents were involved, the government ordered military vigilance throughout Ecuador's larger cities and placed the country under a State of Emergency until further notice.[3]  The highest official within the national police resigned from his position, stating that a leader without his officers' trust cannot continue to lead.  The government has called for internal investigations.  At this point, 260 police are under investigation and dozens have been detained.

Why and how did this happen?

In the days after the events of September 30, the Ecuadorian government and its opponents have presented their versions of what occurred and why.  The two versions do not differ so much regarding what happened (although there are some contradictions in both accounts) but there are profound differences regarding who is ultimately responsible.

The event as seen by the government and its supporters

President Correa's administration, since its installation, has been changing the government's infrastructure and administration.  Many of these changes have been the result of legislative reforms.   The Correa administration claims to be modernizing Ecuador's governan
ce and bringing its laws into line with its new rights-based Constitution (approved in 2008).  Many antiquated ways of governance, some of which have been on the books since Ecuador's independence from Spain, are now being eliminated.

The Law of Public Service (the legislation given as a principal reason behind the protests) has been in debate for months inside and outside the National Assembly.  The law deals with the rules governing civil servants, their salaries and their conduct.  It covers all civil servants, from office workers in Ecuador's ministries to police, fire-fighters, health workers and military. 

According to the Correa administration, a key step for modernizing the government is to change the antiquated system of cash bonuses, or "bonos," that have been a part of both private and public salary scales for decades.  These bonos are given every few months as dictated by law, as commendations for certain accomplishments and on holidays and similar occasions.  The administration's objective is to eliminate the bono system completely, starting with the public sector, replacing it with a unified salary system.  This system would include scales for overtime and raises based on professional advancement.  Legislators from the President's coalition state that the legislation was developed in consultation with those who would be affected. 

Even though the plan to raise the salaries of Ecuador's security forces began under Correa's predecessor, Alfredo Palacio, it was under Correa that their salaries had been raised, along with an increase in the supply of new equipment for police around the country.  Convinced that he had done much for Ecuador's national police, Correa went to the police regiment in Quito confident that they would listen.  Correa stated that he never imagined that a president of a democratic country should be frightened of personally addressing members of its national police force.

The government maintains that it took control of all public broadcasting for six hours to eliminate the possibility that the protestors could use private airwaves to rally support for the insurrectionary police and further endanger the President and his government.  Also, the government claims that intense negotiations were occurring between the armed services and the government on multiple levels throughout the day.

According to Correa and others in his administration, political opponents within Ecuador interested in toppling Correa spread misinformation about the legislation among the police and military.  The President claimed that the protestors had not even read the legislation and that, if they had, they would see that the newly proposed salary scale compensated for the bonos eliminated in the legislation.  To Correa and his supporters, the events of September 30th were a coordinated plan to overthrow his administration using misinformation.  This plan included the takeover of state resources; a rebellion of military and police personnel, including their equipment; arms, tanks and tear-gas.

In particular, the government is pointing to the leader of the Patriotic Society Party (PSP, by its Spanish acronym), ex-president Lucio Gutiérrez, as a possible organizer of the uprising.  Gutiérrez's accusers note that the police who make up the honor guard of the National Assembly denied access to the Assembly Hall to all representatives except those who belong to PSP.  The government also states that, throughout many of the protests, "Viva Lucio" could be heard shouted by participants.   According to the government, Gutierrez's attorney, Pablo Guerrero, who was seen in the crowd that broke into the state-run television station the night of September 30th, led and organized the attempted take-over of the station.[4] Correa has also made reference to a paramilitary organization within the ranks of the country's security forces responsible for developing a conspiracy against his government.  In his weekly Saturday radio talk after the events of September 30th, he said, "[W]e must combat with all that is in our power those expressions of fanaticism and fascism."

The event as seen by the opposition 

The opposition maintains that throughout his presidency, Correa has confused his role as executive with that of the legislature.  Because he has a majority in the National Assembly, they contend, he has practically ruled by decree.  The process for the approval of the Law for Public Service was one more example of Correa's dictatorial style, they say, and it was the last straw for those it directly affected.

Under the new Constitution, the President has the right to a line-item veto over any legislation.  In addition, he has the right to edit any bill that comes to him.  He vetoes or changes the parts with which he disagrees, then returns the legislation to the Assembly for its approval – often presenting a very different bill than the Assembly originally debated and approved.  With a majority of representatives from the President's movement in the Assembly, the edited bills are usually approved with the President's changes.  According to the opposition, input from civil society is basically negated, as is genuine debate in the Assembly. 

The new Constitution also allows for what Ecuadorians call a "muerte cruzada" – the President's right – once during his term and with the Constitutional Court's approval – to disband the National Assembly and call for new elections, including elections for President.  The opposition points out that Correa often uses the threat of muerte cruzada to obtain the legislation he wants.  This accusation, combined with the President's authoritarian governing style and conflictive personality, has led many in the opposition to call Correa a dictator and, by extension, to believe the police had the right to protest against him. 

The opposition states that Correa's first mistake was going to address the protests at the police regiment in Quito.  Rather, he should have called for dialogue with all who were protesting around the country.  His behavior at the protest – tearing his shirt and calling for them to go ahead and kill him if they wanted – only served to exacerbate the situation.  Some say that this was deliberate:  Correa went to the Quito regiment with the intention of raising the level of anger, so that the protestors would be seen as the aggressors.  As one representative from the opposition Social Christian Party put it, "The President entered into the lions' den with a message of confrontation."[5]  Once Correa was held in the hospital, the opposition maintains that the government did not explore every opportunity it may have had to negotiate with the protesters.

The opposition, including major privately-held Ecuadorian media outlets, point to the government's takeover of broadcasters as proof of its manipulation of the events of September 30th.  The opposition notes that this control allowed the government to define the event as an attempted coup.  This was the definition then heard on international television stations and used by international bodies such as the OAS (Organization of American States) and UNASUR (Union of South Americ
an Nations) as they pronounced themselves in full support of President Correa.

According to the opposition, Correa and his government incited and then manipulated a tense situation to their advantage.  There are grave concerns among opponents that Correa will now use the event to concentrate even more power in his own hands.  Newspaper editorials against Correa have even stated that they are disgusted by Correa's attempts to present himself as a hero and martyr.  Many have even stated that Correa's arrogance is responsible for the numbers of dead and wounded.

A response to both points of view

There has been frustration with Correa's combative governing style for years.  Many of the reasons behind those frustrations are legitimate; key legislation has often been forced through the National Assembly made up of a majority from the President's coalition.  The President is known as a leader more likely to attack than to seek dialogue. 

At the same time, Correa is confronting governing and economic structures that have long prioritized the interests of the elite and wealthy over the poor and marginalized.  "Obviously what I'm doing affects privileges, and we always knew that there was risk in this project," Correa recently told the New York Times.  "But the only way of not generating conflict is to do nothing, and I wasn't elected to do nothing."[6]  However, many people who enthusiastically joined Correa's government have left amid frustration and confusion caused by the President's mercurial personality and peremptory decisions.  These realities and contradictions have certainly contributed to a national atmosphere of tension on which the protests built.

In addition, as reported by one of Ecuador's major newspapers, El Comercio, dissatisfaction among the lower ranks of the national police force has been simmering for years.[7]  Although salaries have risen under Correa, there remains a notable difference between the pay scale of the military and that of the police, each under different ministries.  Furthermore, the salary disparity between police officers and their subordinates is an issue that has festered for years.  The police do not feel that their superiors have adequately represented their interests to the Correa government, specifically with regard to their salaries.  Also, there are ongoing legal cases involving accusations of corruption and police brutality.  Those in the lower ranks of the police feel that they are not receiving support in these cases from their superior officers.[8]  The military were also unhappy with the new public service legislation.  Although there were far fewer military troops than police involved in the protests, even when military spokesmen criticized the way protests were carried out, they still called for a revision of the contested legislation. 

The above are clearly reasons why police, and some military, might protest.  They do not, however, rationalize leaving Ecuador's citizenry unprotected and responding to Correa's anger with force of arms.  Even one of Correa's most vociferous political antagonists, Jaime Nebot, the mayor of Guayaquil, stated, "The law [of Public Service] has many faults.  However, no law, however badly designed, can justify acts of vandalism and outrage against citizens as has just happened [in Guayaquil]."[9]  How can any country function under the possible threat that one of its armed security forces may turn their weapons against the legitimately elected government to impose their political will?

Debate continues in Ecuador about whether this was a deliberate (albeit frustrated) coup attempt or simply a protest that got out of hand.  As analyst Galo Khalifé has noted, "Its one thing for a few police to be demanding things and protesting, but something very different for military personnel to take over the runways at the Quito airport; airports are strategic sites.  In a society with a tradition of coups for many years, it is not irrational to interpret such an act as a coup attempt."[10]    

In a recent review of the events of September 30th, another observer, Pablo Ospina Peralta, contends that "There is no room for doubt that various of those implicated outside the hospital that night were prepared to kill the President.  However, there was not one commanding and uniting voice:  the protestors were improvising."[11]  While Ospina does not label the events of September 30th a coup attempt, because he cannot identify any one coordinating figure, he warns about the alienation caused by Correa's governing style:  "the disaffection [with Correa] of various sectors – agrarian, indigenous, labor, university, among others – continues to accumulate, adding up to a dangerous equation.  This may not impede the President from maintaining high popularity polls, but he continues to alienate active and politically defined allies."[12]

In addition to the debate over whether what took place was indeed a premeditated coup attempt or  a more limited protest that quickly generated disorder and was seized upon by those who saw a chance to topple Correa, questions still remain about who was behind its inception and organization.  While the government is presently leading an internal investigation within both military and police bodies, several opposition-party leaders are correctly calling for an objective investigation led by a special, independent commission that would include representatives from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the UN High Commission on Human Rights.

The aftermath of September 30th is traumatic and could possibly lead to even more anger among the police ranks.  Every member of the police honor guard that was responsible for protecting the National Assembly has been reassigned to different locations throughout the country, separating them from their families and their homes in Quito.  The hundreds of police now under investigation and the dozens who are jailed face criminal punishment.  Ecuadorian citizens' trust in the national police has been shaken.  A wide breach was opened between Ecuador's security forces when insurrectionary police opened fire on the members of the military and a few elite police officers who had moved in to rescue the President.  Correa described it as "the saddest day of my life and this government … Ecuadorians killing their Ecuadorian brothers."[13]

The normally outspoken and conflictive Correa has been somewhat subdued since September 30th.   He has repeatedly emphasized that not all police were involved in the uprising and that Ecuador's security forces cannot be judged by that day's events.  On the other hand, he and his government continue to insist that there was a conspiracy behind the events of September 30th and that a paramilitary group has infiltrated Ecuador's security forces with the aim of toppling his government.  Those statements alienate the opposition, some of whom suggest
that Correa will use such a claim as an excuse to act against any criticism of his government.  And the opposition has been vociferous in its criticism, including very condemnatory editorials in the country's principal media outlets.  The opposition will not let up on its insistence that Correa, and the way he governs, is responsible for all the events of September 30th.

On the other hand, an interesting effort at reconciliation has begun among key players in the uprising.  On the afternoon of October 7th, the Joint Chiefs of Staff representing all branches of Ecuador's military, including its leader, General Ernesto González, arrived at the headquarters of the National Police.  González said the purpose of their presence was to greet the new command and to smooth over differences between the two branches of Ecuador's security forces.  Regarding the firefight that took place at the police hospital, he stated, "The armed forces were never ordered to confront the police … we went to rescue the President….  Unfortunately, other infiltrated elements showed a different attitude and we were forced to legitimately defend ourselves."[14]  It seems clear that the military does not blame the police as an institution and wants to continue to work side by side with the nation's police force.  Tensions would abate remarkably if the President and his supporters could somehow arrive at a similar understanding with the opposition.  However, all present signs indicate that such reconciliation appears quite unlikely.

[1] Sandra G. Edwards writes frequently for WOLA and has lived in Ecuador since 1991, working for international NGOs and as an independent consultant in human rights, forced migration and drug policy issues.

[2] "En arca abierta," Vistazo, No. 1035, 7 October 2010, p. 27.

[3]  The government can make decisions and take actions based on their understanding of what is needed to protect the country's citizens.  This includes actions that might ignore a citizen's civil rights.

[4]  Guerrero is now in exile (no one knows where) and has appeared on video proclaiming his innocence and that the government's accusations against Gutierrez is part and parcel of the government's attempt to eliminate the opposition.

[5]  Leonardo Viteri, National Assembly Representative from the Partido Social Cristiano (PSC), quoted in Vistazo, No. 1035, 7 October 2010, p. 15.

[6]  Simon Romero, "Ecuador Leader Confounds Supporters and Detractors," New York Times, 9 October 2010.

[7]  "Las condiciones en que trabaja la tropa fueron un detonante de la insurrección," El Comercio, 10 October 2010.

[8]  Ibid.

[9]  Jaime Nebot, as quoted in Vistazo, No. 1035, 7 October 2010, p. 15.

[10]  Galo Khalifé, consultant on media issues, as related in "Dos lecturas de cómo se armó la versión del golpe," El Comercio, 7 October 2010.

[11]  Pablo Ospina Peralta, ¿Intento de Golpe o Motín Policial?, Comité Ecuménico de Proyectos (CEP), Quito, October 2010.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  Vistazo, No. 1035, 7 October 2010, p. 15.

[14]  "El Mando de FF.AA. visitó a la cúpula de la Policía para liberar tensiones," El Comercio, 8 October 2010.