by Drs. Joshua Holst and Angelica Maria Bernal
LIVE DRAFT: Last updated 4 July 2022 10:00PM
Leónidas Iza, President of Ecuador’s national indigenous movement, faces irregular charges brought forth by Ecuador’s Attorney General and PetroEcuador, the state-owned petroleum company.
Over the month of June, Indigenous protesters have put their lives on the line, braving the cold and going without food or shelter for days for a cause they say is not only central to Indigenous survival but for that of all Ecuadorians who continue to struggle in the aftermath of the pandemic. The government’s response has been marked by state violence, repression, states of exception, and stalled dialogue. As of this date, 5 protesters have been killed: Jhonny Muenala, Byron Huatatoca, Henry Quezada, Franco Iñiguez, and José Villa. The child of a protester and a soldier have died as well. In addition, the Alliance for Human Rights Ecuador reports 313 people injured, 147 detentions, and 74 other human rights abuses against Indigenous and popular sector protestors. These violations have been the responsibility of Ecuadorian police and military. These attacks on protestors continued to escalate: over the course of the 17-day National Strike (Paro Nacional), President Guillermo Lasso authorized lethal force against protesters, resulting in mutilations, severe injury and acts of torture.
Shortly after an agreement was reached between the protesters and the President, the movement’s leader was on trial for the “paralyzation of public services.” His fate remains uncertain.
BEHIND THE PROTEST
Over the past year, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), the movement’s umbrella organization, had attempted to advance policies in response to the deepening economic and political crisis. This crisis has been long developing and was escalated by the pandemic.
During the 2020-2021 presidential race, Lasso campaigned on promises to deal with this crisis and the failures of the prior government by Lenin Moreno, Rafael Correa’s socialist turned neoliberal successor. After one year in office, Lasso’s promises remain that, promises replaced by policies that have failed to deal with rising inflation and surging prices for food and fuel. These sky-rocketing costs–coupled with unemployment, slow post-pandemic recovery, rising insecurity, lack of access to education and medicine, debt, and lack of fair pricing for small, rural farmers for their goods–are increasingly making basic goods and subsistence out of reach for a vast number of Ecuadorians. Rural sectors, where indices of poverty are upwards 70%, are disproportionately impacted. In the most remote areas, the environmental impacts of mining activity invading Indigenous territories has contributed to driving subsistence farmers into hunger and poverty. In urban areas, waves of exploitative microlending debt, prices spiraling out of control, and economic hardships caused by the pandemic have pushed people into desperation.
The IMF had pressured Ecuador’s previous president to attempt to remove gas subsidies in 2019, resulting in widespread protests leaving 11 dead and hundreds injured. After his inauguration in 2021, Lasso and the IMF launched a plan to phase out the gas subsidies once again. In the face of public outcry, Lasso instituted gradual monthly gas price increases instead of a sudden removal of subsidies. By June of 2022, gas prices had doubled in Ecuador, driving up not only the cost of transport and all basic goods including staple foods in urban areas. For the poor, these price increases meant food insecurity. With widespread urban malcontent over the skyrocketing prices, CONAIE developed a platform of 10 policy objectives that would combine the interests of the urban poor, rural farmers, and remote communities attempting to defend subsistence livelihoods.
For the urban poor, CONAIE sought to freeze gas prices, extend repayment on debts, guarantee labor rights, and address the rising violent crime sweeping Ecuador’s cities. For farmers, CONAIE sought fair prices on agricultural products and control over price speculation on primary goods. For those remote indigenous groups who rely on subsistence, CONAIE demanded a halt to the extractive mining frontier by revoking executive decrees that skirt indigenous rights, respect for collective rights outlined in the Constitution including the right to Prior Consultation and indigenous control over Amazonian development funds. For everyone, CONAIE sought support for health and education.
CONAIE initiated repeated attempts to initiate dialogue with Ecuador’s government on this platform for over a year, starting in June of 2021. After a year without results, CONAIE declared a National Strike on Monday, June 13th. Organizations from the coast, the Andes, and the Amazon blockaded the roads surrounding major cities insisting the government meet ten demands. Waorani groups in the Amazon occupied two petroleum blocks. As the National Strike advanced, a number of allies emerged: associations of taxi drivers, bus drivers, farmer’s organizations, labor unions, neighborhood associations, and environmental organizations.
AN AMAZONIAN PERSPECTIVE
Huddled together to sleep under a lean-to made of single tarp supported by sticks, protesters at the blockades surrounding the Amazonian city of Puyo are wet, cold and hungry. Far from home, many have gone for days without food. Borrowed clothes keep their children warm, many don’t even have that.
Silvana Nihua of OWAP, the Waorani Organization of Pastaza, explains, “We’ve decided as a nationality to voluntarily join the blockade, because this government wants to keep violating and repressing our rights, without prior consultation. In our territory there are many petroleum interests… this has caused many problems. We’ve become impoverished. We lack education, we lack health, we lack employment. Where everyday barrels of petroleum are leaving for the rest of the world, those of us who own this territory, for whom this is our home, are living in misery.”
OWAP, formerly called CONCONAWEP, made international news in 2019 when courts found the government had violated the Waorani right to Free, Prior, Informed Consent in concessioning and exploiting petroleum reserves in Waorani territory. On the ground, these legal victories have not been observed over the past 3 years, with petroleum activity only accelerating. In the summer of 2021, President Lasso issued executive decrees 95 and 151, opening avenues to allow corporations to evade observing indigenous rights, and speeding up the licensing process.
For Amazonian indigenous living from hunting, gathering and yucca cultivation, petroleum has been devastating, resulting in death, malnutrition, illness, and the extinction of entire nationalities over the last several decades. Eliminating food supplies and traditional medicines, mining has left Amazonian indigenous groups food insecure, ill, and deep in poverty. For those who have not experienced mining invasions, territorial defense is paramount. Attempts to use bribes to divide communities have resulted in inter-familial and inter-ethnic violence throughout the Amazon.
“People who produce nothing live off the riches of our territory,” Severino Sharupi, President of the Federation of the Shuar Nationality of Pastaza said in a speech. “I didn’t want to come to protest, but the petroleum companies have polluted our water and our children are falling sick,” said Carola, leader of Community Communication for OWAP, the Waorani Organization of Pastaza. “Our ancestors always defended our territory, they always took care of our nature, since nature is our father and mother, this way we have to protect our territory.”
AN ESCALATION OF STATE VIOLENCE
On June 11th, two days before the National Strike, Patricio Carillo Minister of the Interior announced plans to use state intelligence apparatus to follow social movement leaders, announcing that there will be “looting and kidnappings.” CONAIE issued a statement of concern, fearing this signaled the state’s intention to infiltrate the protest with provocateurs to justify the use of force against protesters.
On June 13th, blockades were set up on roads surrounding provincial capitals throughout Ecuador. Entire families, often with children, established enormous camps to guard the rocks, tires and trees used to block the roads. Active efforts were made to establish agreements with local authorities and militaries, who were often outnumbered by throngs of indigenous peoples. In Sucumbios, Waorani groups took two petroleum blocks.
June 14th in the highland town of Latacunga, a reporter interviewing Leónidas Iza, President of CONAIE, was severely beaten. Iza was then detained and taken to Latacunga’s prison. The arbitrary arrest resulted in public backlash. Throngs of people surrounded the prison and Iza was released within hours. Intense protests raged in Latacunga.
The police launched sporadic attacks on blockades throughout the country, resulting in extensive injuries. The practice of aiming tear gas canisters directly at protesters resulted in severe injuries, head trauma, and injured children. In the oil-rich Amazonian province of Sucumbios, Paúl Orlando Nuñez Brunis lost his hand to an exploding tear gas canister. In the capital city of Quito, police launched raids on “peace zones,” universities and cultural institutions where protesters had taken shelter. While eating, students and protesters alike suffered assaults of tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring many. An estimated 8 people disappeared.
June 19th, nearly one week into the National Strike, military and police launched an attack on protesters in a city about 1.5 hours outside of Quito. Fleeing the police aiming tear gas launchers directly at the protesters, several people were driven off a mountain road into a ravine. Jhonny Saúl Félix Muenala, 22-year-old and new father of a seven-month-old child, was killed in the fall. Police listed the death as a “suicide” while others insisted it was a homicide. Outrage over the death fueled confrontations throughout the highlands.
On the day Jhonny Muenala had been killed in the highlands, Amazonian groups organized a march on the provincial government of Pastaza. In the Amazonian town of Puyo, blockades remained largely uncontested the first week. Indigenous leaders urged calm. Severino Sharupi, President of the Federation of the Shuar Nationality of Pastaza, spoke to throngs of people gathered to hear community leaders. “We are here as a nation and we are taking care of this home of the people. You can see: No glass has been broken, no door forced open, no valuables robbed. All is taken care of. Here no neighbor has been injured. Seven days of the National Strike in Pastaza, there have been no reports of killing or assault. Nothing. That tells us that the indigenous community has brought order and security to the province of Pastaza. Where the police have not provided security, we are providing security to the city of Puyo, my compatriots.” Addressing rising crime and insecurity were one of CONAIE’s ten demands. As he spoke, the Indigenous Guard wove through the crowd with trash bags, picking up plastic cups and any discarded trash the crowd may have left.
A Byron Guatatoca lo mataron en Ecuador igual que mataron a Dilan Cruz en Colombia. Le dispararon en la cabeza en medio de protestas contra el gobierno. Soy Colombiano y exijo respeto por los derechos humanos de mis hermanos ecuatorianos. ¡No están solos! pic.twitter.com/UMGH8mdNCq
— David Rozo (@DonIzquierdo_) June 22, 2022
Two days later, on June 21st, police launched an assault on one of the blockades around Puyo. Eyewitness reports say police jumped out of a car and fired a tear gas canister directly into the face of Bayron Guatatoca. Bystanders were outraged, and rushed to aid Bayron and the protesters, pulling out tires and other objects to help fend off the police. Video footage of Bayron, motionless on the street, smoking tear gas spewing from his face as someone attempted to pull the canister out, circulated on social media. Meanwhile the police released a statement claiming Guatatoca had been killed as a result of mishandling an explosive device that they claimed was not theirs. In a subsequent press conference, Patricio Carillo, Minister of the Interior, claimed radical indigenous groups had attacked the police, and Byron had been killed by his own explosives. Carillo accused local indigenous leaders of causing the death. CONAIE released x-rays taken during the autopsy which clearly revealed where the tear gas canister had been lodged in his cranium. Police fled, and angry protesters launched attacks on the local branch of Banco Guayaquil, the bank owned by Ecuador’s President Lasso, and on a local police station, burning cars in the process. On the same day in the highland city of Tarqui, Marcelino Villa was also killed. His body had been badly beaten, and he may have been hit with a tear gas canister as well.
Two more protesters were killed in the capital city of Quito two days later during confrontations with the police. On June 23rd Henry Quezada was killed from the impact of 14 bullets fired at close range into his torso, and a lead bullet was found in the left lung of the body of Franco Iñigues. Police deny using any lethal weapons. Patricio Carillo, Minister of the Interior, claimed a group of foreign criminals had attacked a military convoy, resulting in Iñigues’s death.
Throughout the protests, the President claimed to be in dialogue with the indigenous movement. CONAIE claimed that the President never showed up to the meetings. Lasso held press events in which he appeared alongside small, right-wing indigenous groups who had never been involved with the protests.
The next day, indigenous leaders from various organizations held a Popular Assembly in the Casa de Cultura, one of Quito’s peace zones, in which they discussed the removal of President Lasso. While Constitutional provisions allow for his removal, the underlying hope was that the decisions of the Popular Assembly would encourage the government’s National Assembly to vote to depose him. In the middle of their meeting, President Lasso aired a statement on Ecuador’s major television networks. “…following his public declarations, the real intention of Mr. Iza [the President of CONAIE] is to overthrow the government. It is clear that he never wanted to advance an agenda of benefit to the indigenous nationalities. His only goal was to deceive his base and usurp a legally constituted government.” Authorizing lethal force in order to protect “public order and democracy,” Lasso continued: “To our indigenous brothers and farmers… we ask for your own security and that of your families that you return to your communities.” As the Popular Assembly debated Lasso’s removal and Lasso’s speech aired, the police launched a raid on the Casa de Cultura.
A center of art and activism, the Casa de Cultura has been a sanctuary untouched since the dictatorship in 1965. The police and military surrounded the building, a line of motorcycles followed by a line of police on horseback, followed by a line of tanks with water cannons. With President’s announcement on force, tear gas, rubber bullets and batons rained down on the Popular Assembly as well as those who had gathered to watch and take refuge were assaulted. Children were separated from their parents in the tear gas, as people fled for their lives. “It was like a war zone,” a bystander told me, eyes wide with fear. Police and motorcycles and horses chased people fleeing down the street, brutally beating those they caught. “They tortured people.” An eyewitness saw a policeman forcing a protester to drink gasoline while a child, estimated to be 6 years old, watched crying.
On Saturday, June 24th the government reversed its position and the State of Emergency was lifted, thereby removing the authorization of lethal force. Protesters celebrated through the weekend. That Monday the government finally met with CONAIE and government ministers. In the early hours of Tuesday morning Minister Franciso Jiménez announced that Lasso would renounce petroleum concessions in protected areas, executive degree 95 would be revoked, and executive decree 151 would be moderated, reversing Lasso’s opening of the “petroleum frontier” in indigenous territories.
That night, 300 military personnel accompanying a gasoline tanker arrived at the blockade surrounding the petroleum blocks outside the city of Shushufindi in Ecuador’s oil-rich Sucumbios province. A standoff lasted until 3:40am. Video evidence collected by environmental organization Acción Ecológica showed the military launching a barrage of tear gas, rubber bullets, and live rounds into the protesters. Many on both sides were gravely injured in the subsequent confrontation, and Sergeant José Chimarro, father of two, was killed. In contrast to video evidence and eyewitness reports, national news reported that a military convoy delivering oxygen to a hospital had been attacked by protesters who killed the Sergeant.
En este video "Se demuestra que quien atacó hoy en la mañana #28Junio en la Comunidad 18 de Noviembre, cantón Shushufindi, fue la fuerza pública .@FFAAECUADOR y @PoliciaEcuador no los campesinos".
.@LassoGuillermo @CIDH @fidh_es#ParoNacional2022Ec pic.twitter.com/ocUnuZ9OjZ
— Acción Ecológica (@AcEcologica) June 28, 2022
Later that morning, President Lasso withdrew from negotiations with CONAIE. “We will not return to the table with Leonidas Iza again. Without the necessary guarantees, the dialogue cannot continue.” Lasso agreed to return “only when there are true leaders of all nationalities” present.
As a result of the seventh death, a child, the United Nations Child Rights Committee has urged the Ecuadorian state to cease excessive use of violence against children. The Alliance of Organizations for Human Rights has put together a map of human rights abuses that can be found here.
🚨The UN #ChildRightsCommittee urges 🇪🇨 #Ecuador to cease excessive use of #violence against #children 🚸, protect all children & adolescents during #indigenouspeople #protests, and investigate its security forces. #ChildLivesMatter
— UN Treaty Bodies (@UNTreatyBodies) June 28, 2022
Accounts reported in person by eyewitnesses, videos and photos from bystanders’ telephones circulating on WhatsApp and Twitter, and CONAIE’s use of Twitter and Facebook Live paint a very different picture than the narrative of government officials, national television, and conservative WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook circles.
Official accounts paint the protesters as naïve, unruly indigenous driven to violence by a corrupt leadership, without legitimate grievances. The press repeatedly reported Lasso was in dialogue with CONAIE, despite CONAIE’s insistence he was not. Sergeant José Chimarro’s death was depicted as in defense of a humanitarian convoy attacked by indigenous protesters. Jhony Muenala’s death was a “suicide” and Byron Guatatoca’s death was caused by his own “mishandling explosives.” The retaliation on the Banco Guayaquil in Puyo circulated in national news as further evidence of protester violence.
CONAIE insists much of the vandalism and violence was the product of “infiltrators,” military and police posing as protesters. Carola, a Waorani woman who came from the Amazon to Quito to join the protest, describes how things frequently devolve. “We were nervous, but they said that no one would attack women, so we joined a march with some other groups. Someone, I don’t know who, maybe an infiltrator, threw a rock, and then there was tear gas, bullets and batons. I couldn’t breathe. I tried to record but my phone fell in the chaos. It was horrible.” Carola, the Communicator for OWAP, the Waorani Organization of Pastaza, was left without the phone she needed in order to report on protest violence.
Many believe Lasso attempted to sabotage the talks from the beginning, even before the incident in Shushufindi. As the talks began on June 24th, men with explosives in their backpacks attempted to enter the church where the talks were being held. “The Indigenous Guard caught 10 infiltrators,” a participant in the protests told me. “They are easy to identify. They’re clean, with haircuts.” He described how the Indigenous Guard confiscated their belongings, finding that they had ID cards that clearly weren’t theirs, and phones with a history of contact with the police. They tried, unsuccessfully, to exchange the provocateurs for indigenous political prisoners.
While CONAIE claimed the provocateurs were military and police working for Lasso’s government committing vandalism in order to justify Lasso’s violence against protesters, Lasso claimed the infiltrators were international criminal elements with the goal of destabilizing “democracy and seeding terror.” WhatsApp groups circulated “hacked” emails and spreadsheets with numbers and names highlighted next to dollar amounts. They claimed that the protests were a manipulation tactic to foment chaos, financed by the left-wing ex-President Correa, duping indigenous groups and civil society for his own political gain. These narratives are particularly popular among wealthy business owners and expats. “I’ve spoken to people at the embassy and they confirm this,” a Canadian living in Ecuador insisted. “This is really a drug war.” The theory, implied by Lasso in public statements and circulating on Twitter and WhatsApp, is that Correa, working alongside drug cartels, organized the protests in order to prevent Lasso from extending prison sentences for drug traffickers. State repression of protesters is recast as defense against cartels, and indigenous leaders are blamed for putting their people at risk. This is an especially odd belief, given that one of CONAIE’s 10 demands was for the state to engage with the increasing violent crime plaguing Ecuador post-pandemic. A third, less popular explanation is that the malcontent of the urban poor has driven vandalism.
Between telenovelas, a collage of newscasters urge peace in a PSA. “It’s time to talk,” a newscaster says as a counterprotester holds up a sign that reads “No to terrorism, yes to democracy” echoing the President’s claim that the blockade is a terrorist act. The misdirection from the press can be dizzying. On the heels of the President’s announcement that he would not meet with Leónidas Iza of CONAIE, some still blamed Iza for leaving the talks. “Iza refuses to dialogue!” said an angry taxi driver who had participated a temporary blockade organized by the taxi drivers earlier this week.
“We need lower gas prices, but we also need work!” Throughout the city there is graffiti urging Lasso’s overthrow, urging an end to the IMF, but there is also graffiti calling CONAIE terrorists.
Lasso’s supporters are a minority. His election had been a surprise to everyone, with the support of an estimated 20% of the public. He owed his win to bitter divisions between Correa’s “socialist” arm of progressive politics, and the anti-extractivist indigenous rights arm. Consequently, Lasso’s right-wing party controls very little of the Assembly. As a result of pressure from the protesters, the National Assembly voted to depose President Lasso on June 28th. 82 voted to remove him, 42 voted for him to remain in power, and 11 abstained. They needed 92 votes to succeed. “Those Assemblymembers are bought,” Tom Sharupi, a protester and organizer with Amazonian Confederation CONFENIAE said bitterly.
The military’s role has remained a subject of debate among protesters. “The military have brothers and sisters in the blockade. They only attack because the President makes them. He tells them it’s their job. But if more people die the President will have a problem with the military,” Carola of OWAP explained. “The military is with the President and the economic elites,” countered Tom Sharupi, another protester, “We have civil society, the church, the universities, the unions. The President has only the corporations, the military and the police.”
PEACE AND PERSECUTION
Before Lasso left the table on Tuesday, eight of CONAIE’s ten demands had been resolved. The two remaining issues are the most difficult: indigenous control over development Amazonian development funds and the top issue: the freezing of gas prices. With nothing but silence from the government for a day, CONAIE had called people to Quito from all over the country to paralyze the city on the morning of June 30th.
By noon, a tentative agreement had been reached and the mobilization delayed. At 2:30PM CONAIE made its formal announcement. Leónidas Iza and other leaders made speeches at the Casa de Cultura announcing the policies they’d successfully negotiated to cheering crowds. For many who had put their lives on the line, however, there was a feeling of disappointment. The price of gas was reduced only 15 cents; many had hoped for 40. Others were disappointed that the privatizations were left unaddressed. The agreement remained tentative, with local indigenous organizations evaluating the government’s completion of the agreement over the next 90 days.
On July 4th, Iza found himself in court in Latacunga, where he had been unlawfully detained 20 days earlier for the crime of “paralyzation of public services.” The joint plaintiffs are the Attorney General and PetroEcuador, the state petroleum company. Peaceful protest is protected under the Ecuadorian constitution, making the government narrative of “violent” protest circulating on Ecuador’s televised media central to the case. The process has already been fraught with irregularities. Iza must return to court every 15 days until a final judgment is made. “A protest cannot be confused with an act of vandalism or terrorism,” Iza said in a public statement, “Social struggle is a right.”