Ecuador's police unrest leaves lingering questions

By Irene Caselli

Image caption,
Public opinion is divided over what happened on the day of the police protest

Just over a month after Ecuador's violent police uprising on 30 September, few signs remain of that day's tumultuous events in the capital, Quito.

There are bullet marks around the police hospital where President Rafael Correa was trapped for half a day.

There are also the flowers that indicate the place where a policeman was shot dead during Mr Correa's rescue operation that evening.

And soldiers are still on the streets of Quito which remains under a state of emergency.

But some of the effects of that day lie deeper. There are many unanswered questions about what really happened and public opinion is increasingly divided. Given Ecuador's history of political instability, many are also wondering whether the country will descend into chaos again.


Ecuador hit the international headlines on 30 September when a police protest over benefits turned violent.

After being tear-gassed and jostled, President Correa sought refuge in Quito's main police hospital, where he remained trapped for almost 12 hours. He alleged that he had been kidnapped.

He was finally rescued by the army and returned to the presidential palace. Five people died and almost 300 were injured, according to government figures.

For the government and large swathes of the population, it was a failed coup that aimed to not only topple but assassinate Mr Correa.

For the rest of the population and the opposition, 30 September was a violent police revolt that erupted partly as the result of Mr Correa's incendiary rhetoric.

The government has hailed the victims as heroes who died fighting for democracy.

'Black Thursday'

Gilberto Orlando Cortez's nephew Jacinto Cortez was a soldier who died in the rescue operation.

Mr Cortez said Jacinto would not rest in peace until further light was shed on what he called "Black Thursday".

"It hurts me a lot not to know what really happened," he said.

Mr Cortez, who is close to the opposition Patriotic Society Party (PSP), is calling for an impartial commission to investigate events in order to establish the truth.

"There's only one person responsible here, and that person is the president," Mr Cortez said.

"It was a very imprudent act that the president carried out, he should have taken different measures," said Mr Cortez, referring to Mr Correa's decision to have the military rescue him from the police hospital.

But Mr Cortez's criticism was dismissed by Justice Minister Jose Serrano. Facts speak louder than words, said Mr Serrano, adding that no one could doubt there was a kidnapping and a clear attempt to kill the president.

"Suggesting the contrary is outrageous," he said.

He rejected as "speculation" the suggestions, put forward by Cesar Carrion, the then director of the police hospital, and by several doctors, that President Correa was never kidnapped, but instead chose to stay inside to act as a victim.

Mr Carrion was dismissed as director of the hospital and arrested on 27 October, charged with attempting to assassinate the president.

Independent commission

Mr Serrano said that the judiciary would be in charge of establishing what happened that day.

Image caption,
President Rafael Correa has regained some of his popularity since 30 September

"It is important that we solve this with the highest level of transparency possible," said Mr Serrano. "But the main issue here is that democracy was at risk."

Scores of police officers have been detained so far for their alleged role in the revolt while several others have been suspended.

The government has pointed the finger of blame at supporters of Lucio Gutierrez, a former military officer who participated in a short-lived coup in 2000.

He was later elected president and was himself deposed by popular uprising in 2005. He now leads Ecuador's largest opposition party, the PSP. One of his allies, Fidel Araujo, has been arrested, accused of having incited police officers to stage the revolt.

Assembly deadlock

At a recent meeting with the foreign media, Mr Gutierrez asserted his innocence and said the government had started a witch hunt.

He said Mr Correa, with his confrontational style, had "planted the seeds of violence in the country".

"If the president doesn't change his ways, if he doesn't lead a great national reconciliation, anything can happen in this country," he said.

"You reap what you sow."

However, President Correa appears to have gained political momentum in the wake of the unrest.

Before 30 September, his popularity was waning. In the legislature, the National Assembly, even members of his own party, Alianza Pais (AP), were not supporting him on several controversial laws.

Just a few days before the police revolt, Mr Correa had announced that he was considering the possibility of dissolving the assembly and calling new elections in order to break the deadlock.

But since 30 September, the critical voices within the AP are now backing the president, and it looks like the Assembly might now be able to pass some of the laws that had been put on the back burner for lack of support.

The government has also said that it will deepen its citizens' revolution - the social revolution Mr Correa has been following since he took office in 2007.

Image caption,
Former President Lucio Gutierrez warns another uprising could occur

While there seems to be no current threat to this new-found equilibrium, Ecuador is a very unpredictable country, according to Martin Pallares, multimedia editor at El Comercio newspaper, which is critical of Mr Correa.

Ecuador has had eight presidents since 1996. Of those elected in the past 14 years, none has manage to finish his full term. While Mr Correa's government has been the most stable in a decade, one never knows what the next detonator could be.

"We never thought that a revolt might start up from the police," said Mr Pallares. "Correa's way of governing is dangerous. This could happen again."

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