Ecuador: Uneven outrage at political assassinations is harming the nation

Ecuador: Uneven outrage at political assassinations is harming the nation
Quito, Ecuador’s capital.

Ecuadorian Presidential candidate and former journalist Fernando Villavicencio has been assassinated in the capital, Quito, this month. After leaving a campaign event, where he had continued his staunch anti-corruption/crime position that had characterised much of his journalistic career, he was shot dead by seven gunmen who were reportedly Colombian nationals (suggesting a link to organised crime in the neighbouring state), one of whom was killed in return fire and the other six were apprehended.

 

To the international community unaware of the current situation in Ecuador, this will have come as a complete shock. Though to Ecuadorian’s and those involved in the nation, Villavicencio’s murder is illustrative of the exponential surge in violent crime over recent years, though still represents a departure from previous expressions of criminal activity. Until recently, Ecuador has been seen by the international community as a nation characterised by relative calm in relation to neighbours like Colombia and Peru. Since 2016 however, violence and non-state armed activities have been rising annually, indicated most clearly by the doubling of the homicide rate between 2020-2022, an alarming figure. 

 

The surge in crime is a complex mix of myriad factors, some engineered and some chance. Largely, the surge began in 2016. The neighbouring Government of Colombia signed a monumental peace agreement with FARC, ending a 53-year insurgency. FARC, in order to fund their various revolutionary activities, had controlled many of the cocaine trafficking routes in and around Colombia and as the group demobilised, other groups have looked to fill the lucrative power vacuum. Juggernauts of the narco-trafficking industry, like the Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generacion cartels have since recruited local proxies to seize power in Ecuador. For cartels and the like, Ecuador is a veritable paradise for illicit activities. A high quality road network, an unevenly spread military and police presence, a dollarised economy, no visa requirements and a large portion of young men who, due to COVID and worsening economic conditions, are desperate for income. Ideal for the growth of illicit activity. Organised criminal groups have capitalised on many of these factors, creating an environment where groups are unafraid of  acting in brazen ways, as seen by the very public shooting of Villavicencio. 

 

Disgust and outrage at the assassination has, rightly, swept across the international community as many worry for the stability of the political machinery and safety of the nations institutions. Particularly, as the degradation of Ecuadorian safety has occurred at such high speed. However, despite the shock felt after Villavicencio’s death, this is not the first major political assassination of 2023 in Ecuador. 

 

On the 26th February this year, Eduardo Mendúa was shot dead at point blank range by two sicarios (gunmen) outside his home in Dureno. A reputable leader of International Relations at CONAIE, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, Mendúa had long been a vocal protector of indigeneity. Since the 1970s, indigenous communities have been at odds with the Ecuadorian state and multinational petrochemical companies (including state owned Petroecuador). Ecuadorian indigenous peoples have been at the forefront of chemical spills and oil related violence. In the Province of Sucumbíos, Texaco (now Chevron) along with local partner Petroecuador, spilt 17 million gallons of oil. 1 700 hectares  of land and rivers were poisoned. Calculated at around 80 times more than the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, the environmental and human cost was devastating. Dubbed the ‘Amazon Chernobyl’ Ecuadorians are still suffering from the consequences, fish still contain high levels toxic chemicals, people still are unable to enter local rivers vital for the sustenance of life, and many are dying due to complications.

 

The impact of drilling was, obviously, devastating to communities. High concentrations of toxic metals, 352 times above the permissible limits established by environmental guidelines, were released into rivers vital to the sustenance of indigenous life. People, in villages like Napo, began suffering from aggressive cancers and were unable to rely on traditional means to source food. In 1998, local communities began to regain control over areas and physically close wells. But in 2014, Dureno 1 the infamous drill site in A’i Cofán territory was reopened.

 

Communities had long organised to protect their environment. Gold miners in and around Napo village were regularly being chased off ancestral lands, in Dureno, The Cofán guarded lands armed with a variety of tools like wooden spears, radios, drones and maps. Despite this clear local opposition, in 2022, 30 new drill sites were planned by Petroecuador in A’i Cofán. Of course, this was once again led with strong resistance. Eduardo Mendúa, at the forefront of the criticism, vocally decryied the state and corporate nexus as well as organising local illustrations of opposition. The state began it’s attempts to splinter opposition by paying off a small number of people a total of $300 000 USD, but a large part of the community continued in it’s resolve, so by 2023, the area was militarised. Armed forces, police and security were hired to intervene and ensure the operations and interests of international mining companies continued without delay. 

 

Mendua, just a few hours before his death posted on Facebook

 

“We will remain firmer and stronger than ever, we are not to give up an inch of our territory for oil outsiders to destroy the spiritual beings and invisible people of our jungle, rivers, lagoons, sacred places, streams, medicine, our ceibos”

 

Shortly after, he left his home and was shot. His killers are yet to be found.

 

Of course, the murder of Villavicencio is worrying for many Ecuadorians. impACT wishes to re-iterate the notion that the targeting of established political candidates by organised crime illustrates not only their reach at this time, but also their confidence in their ability to gain power  in the future at the consequence of state authority. However, impACT wishes to also convey the importance of even distribution of concern of political expression. Indigenous communities, only wishing to protect their way of life (which is not only their right, but vital to the maintenance of crucial rainforest and the environment) have been consistently abused by the Ecuadorian government and extractivist business entities. The uneven outrage expressed by the international community concerning the deaths of first Mendúa, then Villavicencio illustrates the incredibly precarious position of the likes of The Cofán. If the Ecuadorian state and international community is truly concerned about the safety of  political actors, it must first ensure the safety of their most vulnerable; the indigenous communities maintaining the rainforests so vital to their life and our global environment. Political activity and expression is the right of all, not just for those in estbalished channels.

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