By Liam Higgins
Ecuador’s top story in 2018 was the resounding rejection of former president Rafael Correa and his policies.
In the year’s other major news, the country confronted a flood of Venezuelan refugees as well as deadly threats from former FARC guerillas-turned-drug-traffickers on its border with Colombia.
The public campaign against Correa began in a February national referendum when voters overwhelmingly supported seven proposals presented by President Lenin Moreno, among them one that prevented Correa from running again for president. Others outlawed officials convicted of corruption from holding public office, created a council to investigate corruption in the justice system and other public offices and reversed a 2016 law increasing estate and capital gains taxes.
Throughout the year, Moreno maintained a drum beat of opposition to the Correa administration, blaming it for corruption and a variety of economic and governance problems. A number of Correa-era officials, some who had pledged loyalty to Moreno, were ousted from their positions, most notably National Assembly President Jose Serano and Vice President María Alejandra Vicuña, who had, in turn, replaced Jorge Glas who was sentenced to prison in 2017 on corruption charges.
Things got worse for Correa in June when he failed to appear in a Quito court to explain his involvement in an alleged 2012 kidnapping attempt of a political rival. Correa, who lives in Belgium with his Belgian-born wife, had asked to be interviewed by video link but the request was denied. A judge issued a warrant for the ex-president’s arrest although Interpol later refused to issue an international warrant, claiming the charges against Correa were mostly political.
According to political analysts, the public anger against Correa was based primarily on policies that they considered an infringement on their human rights. “The people of Ecuador are rejecting the authoritarianism established by the Correa regime,” says Édison Lanza of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. “What is happening now is a dismantling of a variety of repressive policies that discredited, stigmatized and punished journalists, human rights defenders, political opponents and common citizens by the unethical and illegal use of criminal and administrative law.”
A former professor at Quito’s San Francisco University and one-time adviser to Correa, Carlos Ramirez, says there are other factors in the public antipathy toward the former president. “A big one that is often overlooked is the poor economy. If oil prices had remained high and the economy had remained as strong as during the first six years of Correa’s administration, I don’t think you would see the anger you see today,” he says. “In fact, he may have run again for president in 2016 and would probably have been reelected.”
Ramirez adds that Correa was often his own worst enemy. “He had an over-sized ego and believed he knew what was best for Ecuadorians and this infuriated a lot of people” he says. “He favored big government and control of a wide range of public activities. What Rafael forgot is that, by nature, Ecuadorians are very independent and do not like government intrusion into their personal lives. That’s why his approval ratings, which were very high for many years, are now 12 or 13 percent.”
If Correa’s popularity has tanked, that of the council investigating and dismantling many of his programs remains high, according to recent polls. The Temporary Council for Citizen Participation and Social Control, created by the February referendum, has fired dozens of Correa appointees, including judges on the Constitutional Court, the director of media watchdog office, and the national court administrator. It has also sent allegations of corruptions in several government offices to the federal prosecutor.
The work of the temporary council ends in April after a permanent council is elected in the March elections.
Ecuador struggles with a flood of Venezuelan refugees
The second biggest story of 2018 was the influx of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan refugees across Ecuador’s northern border. According to Ecuador’s foreign ministry, more than one million refugees have entered the country since mid-2017. The ministry estimates that 250,000 remain, some seeking permanent residency while others say they are in transit to Peru, Chile or back to Venezuela.
At one point, more than 5,000 refugees a day were entering the country at Huaquillas on the Colombian border. That number dwindled to 1,500 to 2,000 by the end of the year, partly the result of a new requirement that the refugees show valid identification.
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Santiago Chavez says that Ecuador will need $550 million in 2019 to assist the refugees. “Ecuador, like the other countries accepting refugees, needs help to cover the mounting expenses,” he says. “We support the proposal made by Colombia at the last session of the UN General Assembly that international financial organizations such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Andean Development Corporation create a regional fund to help us provide for the migrants.”
According to Chavez, the majority of Venezuelan currently in the country live in Quito, Guayaquil, Cuenca, Santo Domingo, Machala and Ambato.
‘Guacho’ and the murderous drug war on the border
The year’s other major story was the fight against former guerillas who turned to drug trafficking on the border with Colombia. The fight was personalized in the name of ex-FARC commander Walter Patricio Arizala, aka ‘Guacho.’
Guacho, who was killed in December by Colombian military forces, was one of hundreds of former FARC rebel leaders who refused to sign a peace deal with the Colombian government in 2016. He founded the Oliver Sinisterra Front, a group estimated to number 100 to 200 former rebels that operated in a large area in southwest Colombia and northwest Ecuador. According to authorities, the front was an illegal drug production and transporting operation that worked with Mexican drug cartels.
Arizala and the Sinisterra Front are best known for the March kidnapping two Ecuadorian journalists, 32-year-old reporter Javier Ortega and 45-year-old photographer Paúl Rivas along with their 60-year-old driver, Efraín Segarra in March. Two weeks later, Arizala announced that the three had been killed and threatened Moreno that more murders were to come in retaliation for Ecuador’s capture and imprisonment of a dozen Sinisterra members and followers.
In April, a young Ecuadorian couple, Oscar Villacís, 24, and Katty Velasco, 20, went missing near Tumaco. Their bodies were found with stab wounds and other injuries. Again, Guacho claimed credit.
Despite Guacho death, Moreno says that the army and police will maintain a strong presence, numbering 6,000, in Esmeraldas Province, near the Colombian border. “We believe Guacho will be replaced and that the fight against the drug cartels will continue,” the president said.