Ecuador: Lessons from the 2019 Protests

An anti-government demonstrator on Oct. 12, 2019 in Quito, Ecuador, waves the national flag during sometimes violent protests which began when President Lenin Moreno’s decision to cut subsidies led to a sharp increase in fuel prices.


© 2019 AP Photo/Fernando Vergara

(New York) – Ecuador has lessons to learn from the grave violations by security forces and serious violence by some demonstrators during protests from October 3-13, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. Despite certain limitations during the coronavirus crisis, the government needs to pursue investigations and penalties for security force violations and protester violence to prevent a repeat of such violations.

“Like many countries, Ecuador may soon face an economic crisis as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, and the lesson for the government from last year’s protests is that it’s essential for the police to act within the law,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Holding all those responsible for abuses in October 2019 accountable is key to deterring both future abuses by security forces and crimes by demonstrators.”

During the October protests, security forces used excessive force against protesters and journalists, including firing teargas canisters directly at individuals and at close range and brutally beating and arbitrarily detaining protesters. Of the 11 people who died in the context of the protests, at least 4 appear to have been killed by security forces. Protesters committed serious crimes against police and vandalized public and private property. Efforts by the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor General’s Office to investigate these abuses and crimes have failed to yield meaningful results.

On March 16, 2020, the Ecuador government declared a state of emergency to address the health emergency provoked by COVID-19. It includes economic measures to support people affected by the pandemic and establishes that ordinary prosecutor’s offices and courts will stop functioning temporarily to contribute to social distancing measures. As soon as the judiciary is fully back in action, authorities should actively push for rigorous and impartial investigations into police abuses and acts of violence committed during the 2019 protests, Human Rights Watch said.

The protests began on October 3 after President Lenín Moreno signed off on austerity measures that eliminated a US$1.3 billion gasoline subsidy. Taxi and bus drivers, student groups, and thousands of indigenous people led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador or CONAIE, the Spanish acronym) staged days of protest. On October 3, the government declared a state of siege to mobilize military forces with the announced purpose of guaranteeing security for the Ecuadorean people.

From October through December, Human Rights Watch interviewed a dozen witnesses, journalists, lawyers, and victims; analyzed video footage of incidents; and reviewed reports from human rights organizations and government offices. Human Rights Watch also requested information from the Interior Ministry, the Ombudsperson’s Office, and the Prosecutor General’s Office.

Human Rights Watch found that Ecuador’s police used indiscriminate force against demonstrators. At times, they fired teargas at protesters in enclosed spaces, causing asphyxiation. In some instances, they also fired teargas canisters at close range, hitting people in the head and damaging eyes. Some of the teargas cartridges police used were past their expiration date, which can make the gas chemically unstable and more likely to produce asphyxiation. In one instance we documented, a witness saw police run over a demonstrator with his motorcycle.

Investigations by the Prosecutor General’s Office are under way for 9 of the 11 deaths. The Ombudsperson’s Office told Human Rights Watch that at least four of those killed appear to have been victims of excessive police force. Officials recorded 1,507 people injured, but according to the Ombudsperson’s Office, not all cases were recorded so the total is most likely higher.

Between October 3 and 13, the Ombudsperson’s Office reported, 1,228 people were detained; 75 percent have been released. Several were released by judges at their first hearing on the grounds that their arrest did not meet legal requirements.

Many protesters acted violently, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the police, burning military vehicles, and looting and vandalizing buildings. The Interior Ministry counted 435 police officers injured and 202 held by protesters against their will, for as long as several days, according to the minister.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported lootings and vandalism mainly to government buildings and privately owned businesses, as well as attacks by protesters, who also held security officers captive. Both institutions concluded, nonetheless, that security forces had used force excessively against demonstrators and called for independent and impartial investigations into abuses and violence during the protests.

The protests ended on October 13, when the government and CONAIE representatives announced an agreement. It included nullification of the austerity decree that had touched off the protests.

The Interior Ministry told Human Rights Watch that as of December the Police Inspector General was investigating 24 cases of alleged police brutality and that the investigation could lead to administrative and disciplinary proceedings. One such administrative inquiry is already underway.

For additional information about government investigations and the Human Rights Watch findings, please see below.

Government Investigations

In October, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced that a group of prosecutors from its Human Rights and Citizen Participation Office, as well as from a Specialized Unit to Investigate Transnational Organized Crime (UNIDOT) would investigate alleged breaches of human rights and humanitarian law and crimes against public safety during the protests. The Prosecutor General’s Office told Human Rights Watch that as of February 7, 2020, it had registered 700 reports of crimes related to events during the protests.

The crimes included homicide, injuries, abuse of authority, belonging to a “subversive group,” robbery, and illicit association. The office did not specify the cases in which security agents were implicated and said it could not provide information regarding cases under investigation because the “preliminary inquiry” stage, which could last up to two years, is confidential under Ecuadorean law.

There have been judicial decisions in only two cases. In one case, taxi drivers arrested near the airport and accused of illicit association were found not guilty. In the other, Congressman Yofre Poma and others were found guilty of paralyzing public services after they entered the premises of an oil well. Poma claims he entered the premises to calm protesters down.

A reliable source who requested anonymity told Human Rights Watch that results have been limited and the investigations of protest-related abuses have been hindered by a lack of cooperation between government agencies involved, including the police, Interior Ministry, and security forces. The source said that assigning investigations that involve police officers to the national police creates an inherent conflict of interest.

The Ombudsperson’s Office created a Special Commission composed of five independent experts representing civil society. The commission will collect testimony from witnesses, gather information from various government institutions,  and hold public hearings with the aim of identifying human rights violations, suggesting legal strategies to bring cases to justice, and proposing reparations for victims.

The Ombudsperson’s Office has opened two investigations to look into allegations of irregularities in access to health care for injured protesters and follow-up of the state of siege. Under Ecuadorean law, if the Ombudsperson’s Office concludes that abuses were committed, it may directly present a constitutional complaint or share its findings with the authorities, both of which could lead to judicial proceedings.

All efforts to gather evidence and document abuses should be pursued, but they do not clear judicial and administrative authorities from their legal responsibilities to investigate, prosecute, and sanction those responsible, Human Rights Watch said.

Selected Cases of Excessive Use of Force

During the protests in Quito, Sebastián Martínez, a law student, and some friends volunteered to help people suffering asphyxiation from teargas. He told Human Rights Watch that many people – including children, older people, and pregnant women – sought assistance for injuries caused by police brutality.

On the afternoon of October 12, Martínez and his brother went to pick up their car after assisting people at the Pontifical Catholic University in Quito. They had parked near a building known as House of Culture (Casa de la Cultura), where members of the indigenous community were being housed during the protests. Suddenly, the people around them started running, as dozens of police motorcycles roared up, he said. Martínez, his brother, and a third person hid inside the car. When the police noticed them, about 20 of them surrounded the car and started pounding on the windows and doors. One of them pointed a gun at him: “I told them ‘Please don’t hit me, we are humanitarian workers,’ but they did not care. At my door, there were five policemen who hit me with their clubs and then dragged me out and threw me to the ground.”

Police forced Martínez to remain face down as they beat him with batons, while other police smashed the car windows. They said they were searching for bombs. When they found nothing, some of them left. The remaining police put Martínez, his brother, and the third person in a patrol car, interrogated them, and threatened them with detention for “terrorism.” After several hours, a police officer gave them back the car keys and told them to leave. Martínez said he had bruises and other injuries to his back, leg, shoulder, elbows, and head.

On October 5, Ivan Lozano was working for a university-affiliated television channel, covering the protests in Quito, near El Ejido and La Alameda Parks. He was filming with his phone when military convoys dispersed the protesters, and he climbed a tree so that he could keep recording. “I saw how they sprayed pepper gas in a man’s face,” he said. “I was recording that. I felt I could contribute, in that moment, by showing what was happening.”

After Lozano filmed a police motorcycle running over a young boy, a police officer approached and asked him what he was doing. Lozano said he was a journalist, but the officer threw Lozano’s phone to the ground and stomped on it, Lozano said. A second officer told Lozano that he would go to jail for damaging state property. “I tried to explain what I was doing, but they did not get it,” Lozano said. “They were hitting me with batons.”

They took Lozano to a police facility that normally handles crimes such as theft, assault, and rape. He was able to communicate, from there, with his supervisors at the university and with his parents. The university sent lawyers, and Lozano was released after two hours. No police report of his detention exists, he said. Lozano returned to the protests to report on what was happening. “The situation for the next few days was really worrying,” he said, “because we were attacked from both sides, by protesters and the police.”

The Ombudsman’s Office reports that between October 3 and 13, 15 people lost at least 1 eye during the protests. On October 12, security forces shot a teargas canister directly into the face of Jhajaira Urresta, who was participating in a peaceful protest after the government’s 3 p.m. curfew. “I raised my arms and said ‘no more,’” Urresta told El Comercio newspaper. She refers that the policeman stopped 3 meters away, looked and pointed at her and shot the cannister that hit her right in the eye. She lost the eye.

Other examples of excessive force documented by Human Rights Watch include:

  • On October 5, military convoys and motorbikes were used to clear Quito’s streets of protesters, a witness said. He saw four police officers on motorcycles follow a young man and run him over during a protest near Alameda Park.
     
  • On October 5, a witness said, officers sprayed teargas directly into the face of a man already on his knees.
     
  • In several instances, witnesses and the Ombudsperson’s Office said, police fired teargas at demonstrators at close range. The Ombudsperson’s Office, as well as Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo, confirmed that security forces had used expired teargas cartridges, which can be chemically unstable and are more likely to produce asphyxiation.

Injuries and Deaths

Official statistics show a total of 1,507 patients treated by the public health system for injuries during the protests. Of this number, 435 were law enforcement agents. The Ombudsperson’s Office told Human Rights Watch that the number of people injured was higher and that at least some injuries were not properly recorded. Witnesses informed the Ombudsperson’s Office of such irregularities as health personnel changing information on emergency-room admission forms to conceal injuries inflicted during the protests.

The Ombudsperson is investigating to determine the circumstances of the 11 deaths it reported. Among the four deaths from excessive use of force by security forces that the Ombudsperson’s Office identified are those of Marco Umberto Oto Rivera and José Daniel Chiluisa Cusco. Both fell from San Roque bridge in Quito on October 7 as security officers chased them during a protest. They were severely injured and died in a hospital several days later, said a human rights lawyer who followed up on the case.

Arrests

The Interior Ministry told Human Rights Watch that 1,228 people were detained in the context of the protests for crimes including blocking public services, damaging property, and attacking or resisting security forces. On October 15, Interior Minister Romo announced that most detainees had been released in less than 24 hours. The Ombudsperson’s Office reported that 76 percent of detainees had been released almost immediately, some after a judge ruled their arrest illegal.

Lawyers who represented detainees in two prominent cases told Human Rights Watch that police reports on the cases were written minutes prior to the hearings instead of at the time of detention, and included incomplete information and several inconsistencies:

  • On October 10, 19 Uber and taxi drivers, most of them Venezuelan citizens living in Ecuador, were detained near the Quito’s International Airport in the suburb of Tababela. Lawyers for the drivers told Human Rights Watch that the police forced the drivers to kneel and held them on their knees for two hours before they were taken before a judge. State officials contended that several foreigners had been paid to destabilize the government and were arrested for “infiltrating” the protests.

    Human Rights Watch reviewed a police report meant to justify the detention of the 19 men for “suspicious and unusual activities” that could have affected the safety of Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner. The evidence collected by the police included a baseball bat, two small pocket knives, and pictures of the presidential airplane.

    A lawyer involved in the case said the drivers were detained during a police operation, not in response to a flagrant crime, and that they were charged with “unlawful association” even though authorities did not identify what unlawful conduct they may have intended to commit. The facts described in the police report, such as waiting in the premises of the airport, having pictures of the planes, and carrying pocket knives, do not seem to constitute a crime in and of themselves.

    Fifteen of the nineteen detainees were released after an initial hearing and four were granted alternative measures to detention until the day of their final hearing. On January 14, a judge ordered the four released due to lack of evidence.

  • On October 7 and 8, reporters alerted a group of human rights lawyers that police had detained 83 protesters in the building that houses the Legislative Assembly and had taken them away. One of the lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they went to several of Quito’s judiciary branch buildings where people who are detained while committing a crime are usually taken (called unidades de flagrancia in Spanish), searching for the detained protesters, but their whereabouts remained unknown until October 9, when the lawyers learned they were being held in the headquarters of the Intervention and Rescue Group of the National Police (Grupo de Intervención y Rescate, or GIR).

    The police told the lawyers that the detainees’ hearings might be held in the Intervention and Rescue Group building. But instead, after the 24-hour limit under Ecuadorean law for holding someone before bringing them before a judge, and without giving the lawyers advance notice, the police took the detainees before a judge in a courtroom in a local courthouse.

    The lawyers followed the buses with the detainees and were able to speak to them for only five minutes before the hearing. The judge released the detainees but allowed a criminal investigation against 72 of the 83 to proceed on charges of rebellion, for impeding the legislative assembly from convening, without specifying which individual crimes each had committed, the lawyer said.

Unlawful Deprivation of Liberty, Violence Against Security Forces

About 435 law enforcement officers were injured during the protests. Human Rights Watch received credible information about cases in which police officers lost an eye or suffered major burns from a “Molotov cocktail” gasoline bomb. Protesters also held soldiers and police captive in various places. Interior Minister Romo said during a news conference that protesters held 202 security agents against their will, in some instances for several days.

Human Rights Watch reviewed video footage of police officers held in Casa de la Cultura, the cultural complex where Indigenous community members were staying during the protests. Police told the local media outlet Plan V that the people holding them hostage accused them of being responsible for killings of protesters. Witnesses said that some of the captors called for indigenous justice using traditional practices for punishing transgressions, while others protected the captive police.

On October 12, protesters held 54 police officers captive for 7 hours in a stadium in Calderón, north of Quito, according to Plan V. Five of them told Plan V that protesters took their shoes and personal belongings, and beat them with sticks and rocks while forcing them to run. Members of the special police forces, including of the Intervention and Rescue Group and a special operations force (Grupo de Operaciones Especiales, or GOE), rescued them.

Looting, Destruction of Private and Public Property

In her October 15 news conference, Interior Minister Romo said that protesters had blocked 132 main roads, which reduced supplies of medicine, food, and gasoline and other fuels to a large part of the country. Romo cited attacks on oil wells, communication antennas, and the water supply in the city of Ambato. She said 108 police vehicles were damaged, 26 police stations were attacked, and a building housing a police surveillance unit in the center of Quito was burned.

On three occasions on October 12 and 13, a group of protesters attacked the Comptroller General’s Office. They threw hundreds of documents out the windows and set the building on fire. Videos and photos show the building destroyed by fire.

The protests also included serious vandalism against private property. For example, on October 12, people looted Vladimir Viteri’s restaurant, The Quito Stove, in downtown Quito, causing what he estimated was US$20,000 in damage.

Violence Against Media, Journalists

Both security forces and demonstrators attacked journalists and media outlets during the protests. The nongovernmental organization Fundamedios reported that 138 journalists were victims of physical and verbal aggression, threats, harassment, detention, and obstruction to their work. Journalists Human Rights Watch interviewed said that attacks came from security forces between October 3 and 7; after that, until October 13, from protesters.

  • On October 9, a teargas canister struck an audiovisual journalist, Juan Carlos González, on his face while he was reporting from El Arbolito Park. Media reported that first-aid brigades assisted González and took him to a hospital.
     
  • On October 10, a protester threw a rock at a television journalist, Freddy Paredes, as he left Casa de la Cultura after covering a news conference by indigenous groups. The rock caused a severe head wound; the protester was being held in preventive detention at time of writing.
     
  • On October 12, protesters attacked the headquarters of media outlets including the newspaper El Comercio and television news agencies Teleamazonas and Ecuavisa, media reported.

Violence Against Aid Group Shelters, Health Personnel

Medical brigades faced hostility from the police and protesters while trying to aid injured people. Protesters attacked humanitarian and health staff, and security forces failed to protect them. The Ecuadorian Red Cross posted online videos showing protesters throwing objects at their ambulances and paramedical teams struggling, amid shoving demonstrators, to reach wounded people. Henry Ochoa, a Red Cross paramedic, told Channel One that 12 ambulances were damaged during the protests. Unable to secure ambulances and volunteers, on October 9 the Red Cross temporarily suspended its humanitarian work, which it resumed the next day.

On October 12, Quito firefighters reported attacks from protesters as they tried to reach the headquarters of the TV channel Teleamazonas, after protesters set an antenna and two vehicles there on fire. “There are no guarantees that the officers can do their work safely,” Quito firefighting officials said on their Twitter account.

On the night of October 9, police released teargas onto the university campuses of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador and the Universidad Politécnica Salesiana, which were being used as shelters for women, children, and injured protesters. After the event, Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrin accused the universities of providing logistical support to “protesters and groups that committed vandalism.” Interior Minister Romo later apologized that the teargas canisters had been directed at the campuses and said these spaces should be “safe” and it would not happen again.