Crisis in Ecuador: Days of Mourning and Rage

Curfew, raids and psychological warfare in Ecuador. The elimination of fuel subsidies triggered a social uprising, with indigenous groups at the forefront. At the same time, it revealed the inequalities and gaps which persist in Ecuadorian society. Español

Samai Nankintz
17 October 2019, 12.00am
Imagen de las protestas en Quito, octubre 2019. Image: CarlosNoriega. all rights reserved..

QUITO, Ecuador. The curfew goes into effect at 8:00 p.m. and is lifted at 5:00 a.m. It is the morning of October 12, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. At 12:41 a.m., an explosion brings time to a halt between 6 de Deciembre Avenue and Tarqui Street, the location of the State Comptroller’s offices.

The government declared that a domestic-use gas tank had been detonated. Who did it? On social media, city residents report that they continue to hear successive explosions in different locations until around 3:00 a.m. They fear that a "massacre” is underway in Quito.

Neither children, nor women

For eleven days, the streets of the Ecuadorian capital have been militarized and besieged by tear gas bombs. The figures for the October 3rd through 12th National Strike in Ecuador currently stand at 7 dead, 1,340 injured, 1,121 detainees (as reported by the Ombudsman's Office), 1,152 detainees, 108 injured police officers (according to the Government Ministry), and 115 journalists attacked.

Attacks on civilians has given rise to questions regarding the progressive use of force. On the streets, social organizations and the media have documented the remnants of 12-caliber ammunition, pellets, stun grenades, tear gas, pepper gas, and rubber bullets manufactured by the public company Santa Barbara and by private companies, which are both dissuasive and non-dissuasive weapons.

On Friday, October 11th, one of the many marches sets off towards the National Assembly Building, led by women carrying their guaguas (the Kichwa word for children). The women’s sturdy tresses and long interwoven French braids are symbols of beauty and longevity. “As a symbolic act we gave fruit and water to the police. They received it from us. I was able to cross through the fence in front of the Assembly. We stayed there for about an hour and a half. And right before they carried out a staged attack, they had us leave. Then they blew up a teargas canister inside,” said Nayra Chalá, Vice President of the indigenous organization Ecuarunari.

They [the anti-riot police] were hooded. The women were singing and laughing with children and grandparents. They [the anti-riot police] launched tear gas bombs. A baby was screaming because of the tear gas,” stated a Kichwa woman in her testimony. It was an ambush. To justify the subsequent repression of protesters in the area, the official version would later say that a group of indigenous people took over the Assembly and attempted to install a People's Parliament. In an attempt to defend themselves, the marchers uprooted bushes from the park and yanked cobblestones from paths and sidewalks. Sticks and stones clashed against clubs, gas and bullets.

Helicopters circle over the city for hours and hours. Citizens have reported the use of ambulances to supply the police with ammunition, violating the Geneva Conventions. Protesters retaliate by throwing stones at an ambulance, in reprimand for the betrayal of their good faith. As a result, the Red Cross is forced to suspend the dispatch of humanitarian personnel in their ambulances.

Police fire tear gas inside shelters set up to house protesters: the Isidro Ayora Maternity Hospital, the Eugenio Espejo Hospital, close to the National Assembly, and on the grounds of the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador (PUCE), the Salesian Polytechnic University (UPS), and the Ecuadorian House of Culture (CCE). Lines of doctors can be seen crossing Arbolito Park—turned into a veritable battlefield—using medical coats tied to sticks as makeshift white flags. The first responders shout: "Peace zone!" but their aggressors show little sign of hearing them.

The Ministry of the Interior had accepted the creation of a police-free zone to provide protection to women, children, the elderly, injured, first responders and volunteers. In these zones, kitchens and cafeterias, donation collection centers, medical brigade stations, and rest and meeting places were set up—areas which ultimately were not respected. In the Salesian Polytechnic University, at least three thousand people who were taking refuge at night were affected by tear gas attacks, including children who being cared for in nursery areas. These have unquestionably been the most innocent victims of the National Strike.

On social media, Lenín Moreno introduces himself as husband, father, grandfather and the Constitutional President of the Republic of Ecuador—an image which portrays his power as an exercise in humility. On the other hand, the Minister of the Interior, María Paula Romo, identifies ideologically as left-leaning and claims to be a proponent of human rights and freedoms.

Who joined the National Strike? The Indigenous groups were not alone

On October 2nd, transport workers began the National Strike, rejecting of the elimination of fuel subsidies. They requested the repeal of Decree 883 which raised the per gallon price of extra gasoline to USD 2.39 (from 1.85) and diesel to USD 2.30 (from 1.03) at the pump. Ecuador—an oil extracting and exporting country—had left the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and is therefore free to revise fuel prices monthly and purchase from other countries.

On October 3rd, the president declared a 60-day “state of exception” (similar to a state of emergency). Security forces were immediately deployed to protect administrative buildings, and they strongly repelled anyone who managed to get close to the National Assembly or who attempted to reach the Government Palace. On October 4th, transport workers lifted the National Strike, following an agreement to increase bus fares by a maximum of 10 cents over the prior 25-cent fare.

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Quito, Ecuador, Octubre 2019. Imagen: Carlos Noriega. All rights reserved.

Transport services remained irregular. Streets and roads were still blocked. In Guayaquil retail spaces were looted, and in Chimborazo Province, 47 soldiers were held as prisoners. The popular uprising intensified and seemed unstoppable. According to President Moreno, "most of them were coming for me.” Did he fear being overthrown? On October 7th, government headquarters were moved from the capital of Quito to Guayaquil, Ecuador's main port city.

Ecuadorians have a decades-long history of removing unpopular presidents. Abdalá Bucaram, who in 1995 raised domestic-use gas prices; Jamil Mahuad, who in 2000 decreed a Bank Holiday and then dollarized the economy; Lucio Gutiérrez, who in 2005 declared himself the United States’ best ally. The economic adjustment policy agreed to between the Ecuadorian government and the IMF led to social unrest and mobilization, and included a strong Indigenous presence.

According to the government, the protests are part of a plot by former President Rafael Correa and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who are attempting to orchestrate a coup. Lenín Moreno served as Vice-president in the Correa administration for 6 years. However, for the numerous social actors involved, the economic package is, and remains, the primary driving force. Public sector labor rights stand to take the brunt of the impact, with a 20% reduction in pay, 15 fewer vacation days, one salary day per month funneled directly into state coffers, temporary contracts for maternity and paternity leave, recalculation of employer-paid pension plans, and the forced departure of 10,000 public servants until the end of the year.

In February of 2019, President Lenín Moreno's government reached a new agreement with the IMF for 4.2 billion dollars’ worth of financing. The IMF congratulated the president on the announced reforms, whose implications for the private sector include automatic return of taxes to exporters, elimination of the advance income tax, reduction of tariffs for machinery and equipment, and the abolishment of import taxes on technology. In 2018, the Ecuadorian government exempted a select group of banks and businesses from taxes, a move which was equivalent to 80% of national remittance and represented the country’s 50 largest companies. Ecuador’s Internal Revenue Service (SRI) has at present failed to collect a total of USD 4600 million. Ecuador's external debt reached USD 58,980 million as of April 2018.

Rampant rumors of shortages and possible looting created panic and scarcity. In the sector of the Santa Clara and Santa María markets, in downtown Quito, police go from business to business, warning of potential dangers. Citizens share recordings and messages on social networks, and the response is a rush to supermarkets to buy groceries. Meat fridges are left empty. Shelves offer 2x1 soaps and shampoos. Who stands to gain from panic buying? While a 25-pound sack of potatoes costs USD 7 at the Conocoto market, the same can be found for USD 3.33 at the supermarket. To make matters worse, rumors of power outages and water cuts continue to spread. The authorities deny them.

On October 8th, groups of protesters storm the Comptroller and Judiciary buildings. On the same day, a curfew is declared to protect government institutions and military bases. The hearing for the 'Bribes 2012-2016' case—which presumably contains proof of a bribes-for-contracts scheme in the government of former President Correa—is suspended.

On October 9th, the festivities for Guayaquil’s Independence Day are disrupted by the presence of protesters in the streets. The possibility of Indigenous groups making it to the offices of the Guayas Governorship, where President Moreno is currently housed, shift the political forces in Ecuador’s commercial capital. A false spirit of civic duty leads the access to Guayaquil via the National Unity bridge to be blocked with parked dump trucks, in an effort to prevent the arrival of Indigenous groups.

In an execrable display of racism, Social Christian Party leader Jaime Nebot, together with the mayor of Guayaquil, Cynthia Viteri, make an appeal for citizen defense of Guayaquil. “The coup instigator, the looter, is not bad because of his race, because of his ideology, because of his origin; they are bad because of their criminal attitude. Here we will punish them. We don't want that kind of people here. We must ensure that we're respected. The much-called-for peace is indispensable. But at times, war is necessary to achieve peace,” warned Nebot, while sternly recommending that Indigenous people “stay in the páramos” (the high Andean mountain regions which are home to many Kichwa-speaking groups).

President Moreno returns to Quito on October 9th and following that, it becomes difficult to determine where he is at any given time. He has received support from seven countries and the United Nations and the Episcopal Conference have offered to mediate the conflict, but dialogue fails to materialize. Journalists are beaten by the police while covering the protests and the Minister of the Interior, María Paula Romo, offers her apologies.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) have declared their opposition to the government reforms and subsidy cuts. The president of CONAIE, Jaime Vargas, requests the repeal of Decree 883 and calls for a reversal of the economic measures and for the sale of ancestral lands to oil and mining companies to cease.

“They say they want to make fuel prices true to reality (“sincere”) but why not do the same with wages?”, asks Azuay’s Prefect, Yaku Pérez, an indigenous leader known for his opposition to the government of former President Rafael Correa and for his defense of water rights in the anti-mining struggle.

In multiple nationally-televised addresses, President Moreno calls for dialogue, but these addresses are inevitably followed by the use of hundreds of stun grenades, tear gas, pellets and other military devices to deter protesters. No bill has been sent to the Assembly of Ecuador to reform Decree 883. The agreements reached with transport workers and workers are strictly oral and have yet to enter into law.

Mourning and rage

In indigenous cultures, the entire family moves as a unit: father, mother, children and the elderly journey together like kernels in a single ear of corn. They came on foot from Cayambe, walking 65.5 km, just as the indigenous activist Tránsito Amaguaña (1909-2009) did many years ago. Together with Dolores Cacuango (1881-1972), she serves as a powerful reference for both feminism and the struggle for workers' rights.

As they advanced along the roads towards Quito, chants could be heard: "If Tránsito were alive, she'd be here." Between October 8th and 9th, some 20,000 indigenous people attempted to reach the capital. They arrived in the beds of cargo trucks. Those who cultivate food for consumption in the cities abandoned their fields to protest what they considered a grave injustice.

As of October 9th, the indigenous movement was the only visible opposition on the streets. Their ponchos and knits flooded the city of Quito. They exercised their right to resistance and opposition, protected under Articles 98 and 111 of the Ecuadorian constitution. They denounced the anticipated sale of natural resources—such as oil and minerals—by the Moreno and Correa governments.

The use of progressive force tactics by the police and the armed forces sparked both mourning and rage. The death of two of the three young people who fell from a bridge in the San Roque market was reported: 26-year-old Marco Oto (with a legally-verified intellectual disability of 46%) and José Chaluisa. In Cangagua, Cayambe, 15 people were injured by the National Army. Alex P., 17, was beaten, and Jimmy Q., 15, received a pellet shot close to his lung. Both were transferred to the Eugenio Espejo hospital. Other victims were taken to the Calderón Hospital. In Oyambarillo, close to the Quito airport, the Army used intimidation tactics, and tear gas bombs were exploded in the Shuar indigenous community in Kunkuk via Puyo.

Indigenous groups reacted to police and army attacks by declaring a State of Exception in community territories, covered by the Ecuadorian Constitution and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as by ILO Convention 169. Indigenous groups retained police and military elements in Cotopaxi, along with 54 police officers in Calderón, for having invaded their community territories. The true repercussions of this violence have yet to be fully grasped.

The news of the first dead shocked the Indigenous groups, who had already spent several days in the capital, far from their homes. The Cotopaxi women cry and take their long braids in their hands to console themselves. The names are Raul Chilpe, Inocencio Tucumbi, an indigenous leader from Cotopaxi, José Rodrigo Chaluisa, Abelardo Vega Caizaguano, and Silvia Marlene Mera Navarrete.

The events which then took place in the Agora (public meeting space) at the House of Culture is a separate story that must be told in detail, beginning with the Indigenous people’s pain, their agitation and rage, and their reasons.

At 9:00 a.m., following their customary meeting, Indigenous groups once more marched towards the Assembly, where their voices continued to go unheard. Out on the street, they decide to retain 8 police officers and hold them in the House of Culture. When they return to the Agora stage, in the House of Culture, they explain that they plan to bring their dead to this space in a symbolic act, carried upon the shoulders of the police officers in question. At the same time, they demand that journalists from local and international media broadcast their messages live.

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Quito, Ecuador. Octubre 2019. Imagen: Carlos Noriega. All rights reserved.

Arbolito Park, where the House of Culture is located, had been under siege for a week, and a metallic taste—a tangy mixture of tear gas and pavement—lingers in the air. The pavement is covered in dark ash. The nearby vigil for Inocencio Tucumbi takes place 113 km from his native Pujilí in Cotopaxi. Tucumbi was a farmer, day laborer and mason, and he had arrived to Quito with his wife and three children.

Gustavo Tucumbi, Inocencio Tucumbi’s son, narrated what had occurred: “We were fighting to get into the Assembly. It was between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. The police pursued us to the Salesian University. The men on horses shot him in the head and my father died. I don't want this to remain in impunity.” Gustavo sustains that the police are pressing him to change his version and say that his father died as the result of a fall. The Minister of the Interior, María Paula Romo, claims that Inocencio Tucumbi died from a contusion, according to autopsy reports.

Protests by the indigenous movement are discredited through colonial racism, and the Minister of Defense, Oswaldo Jarrín, ignores indigenous collective rights and the autonomy of ancestral territories, affirming that there is only one State, and it is the Ecuadorian State. The government’s actions hinder dialog between the government and the indigenous leadership due to a lack of credibility.

Among the 783 detainees as of October 11th, 17 Venezuelans were accused of leaking executive branch intelligence. The government reports that there are FARC infiltrators in the marches, and highlights the presence of “traffickers, drug traffickers, correístas (followers of Rafael Correa), and Latin King gang members.” The enemy is everywhere. The Comptroller Building burns all afternoon following a raid by protesters.

The tension of the days and the hours accumulates until it at last explodes into confrontation, but dialogue is desperately needed. The government and the Indigenous movement agree to meet for discussions, with mediation led by the UN and the Ecuadorian Episcopal Conference.

“Indigenous Peoples’ Day”

On orders from President Moreno, the curfew starts at 3:00 p.m. and extends indefinitely. No one can leave their homes. Six days of curfew have now passed, and ten of raids and psychological warfare. What is the cost of maintaining a continual siege against civilians in the country’s neighborhoods and provinces? It's 8:00 p.m. on October 12th, the day of indigenous resistance. Women's organizations in Quito have called for a march against the economic package in the morning, followed in the evening by a cacerolazo (a symbolic and resonant gesture consisting of banging on empty pots to indicate a lack of food).

The organizations have instructed people to go up onto their rooftops or to lean out of doors and windows, so that the clanging of pots and utensils can be heard sounding out against indifference and fear. In the neighborhoods of Ophelia, Solanda, La Tola, La Vicentina, San Blas, Los Chillos Valley and La Ferroviaria, what begins as a wane pattering swells into an all-encompassing clamor. Young fathers and mothers decide to venture outside, carrying their children on their shoulders.

Neighbors’ faces appear in the night’s darkness. Why not go out?, they ask themselves. "We don't want any more dead," some whisper, while others shout "Murderers!” in protest of the deaths. And many continue to chant: “Out Lenin, out!" A metallic fury hangs in the air. Lead. Tears. The combustion of flame. Dinnerless pots are turned upside down to raise the cry. And despite the curfew, people emerge from their homes to seek comfort in one another’s eyes.


Translated from the Spanish original by Kimrey Anna Batts.


In the absence of proper guarantees for journalistic freedom, the author of this work has signed using a pseudonym.

This text was originally published in Pie de Página.

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