Candidates charged with gang ties; Expert warns Cotopaxi eruption dangers are ‘downplayed’; SRI targets companies, online sales and ‘influencers’

Jan 20, 2023 | 13 comments

As the February mid-term election approaches, more candidates are being accused of connections will crime organizations. On Wednesday, the Anti-Corruption Parliamentary Front handed over the names of an unknown number of candidates it says have received support from drug, mining and human trafficking crime groups. It was the organization’s second delivery of suspect names to prosecutors since the beginning of the year.

In Cuenca, the Front claims that Molleturo parish council candidate Jonathan Bermeo is involved in drug trafficking and “coyote services” of migrants traveling to the U.S. Bermeo denies the charge, calling it a “smear campaign” by the government.

The national prosecutor’s office is investigating 21 candidates whose names had been submitted earlier by the Front but said it is unlikely to finish its work before the February 5 elections.

Fernando Villavicencio

Meanwhile, president of the National Assembly’s Oversight Commission Fernando Villavicencio is pushing for “immediate action” to investigate members of the Assembly he claims have ties to illegal drug and mining groups. “Yes, candidates with ties to organized crime must be investigated but we must also expose those already in office who are aligned with illegal activity.”

Villavicencio has provided several names to the prosecutor’s office, including that of Assemblyman Ronny Aleaga, a leader of the Correista UNES party. In social media posts, Aleaga was pictured with three drug cartel members at a Miami pool party in 2022, two of them fugitives from Ecuador.

Villavicencio also claims that more than a dozen employees of public companies have connections with crime gangs. “These people have worked for three presidents, Correa, Moreno and Lasso, and their background has been ignored. Now is the time for a serious inquiry.”

Expert warns that Cotopaxi eruption dangers are ‘downplayed’
A Quito geology professor says the government is “carelessly downplaying” the risk of the Cotopaxi volcano. “It is understandable that officials want to avoid scaring the public but they are committing a disservice by not explaining the consequences of a major eruption,” says Danilo Zambrano of the University of San Francisco.

Activity at the Cotopaxi volcano on Thursday was some of the strongest recorded since October of last years.

“Almost every advisory issued by the Geologic Institute emphasizes the point that activity at the volcano is below that of 2015 and that an eruption is not imminent,” Zambrano says. “This may be true at the moment but the activity has been intensifying in recent weeks and emergency preparations only began at the beginning of the year. No, we should not frighten people unnecessarily but they must know that the threat of eruption is growing. They must also know that this is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world and be prepared.”

Within the last week, the Geophysical Institute reported that activity at Cotopaxi has “increased significantly” and advised farmers in Cotopaxi Province to prepare for increasing episodes of ashfall, and protect crops and livestock. On Monday and Tuesday, the gas and ash cloud above the volcano rose two kilometers into the sky, the highest recorded since the current eruptive phase began in October of last year.

Institute personnel began meeting two weeks ago with risk management officials in Latacunga and in Quito to discuss evacuation plans in case of large-scale eruption.

According to Zambrano, such preparations should be intensified. “We can be fairly certain that there will not be a large eruption this week or next, but this does mean one is not coming,” he said. “Cotopaxi’s history is one of catastrophic eruptions and the geologic conditions remain in place from those events, including one 12,000 years ago that sent so much material into the atmosphere that world temperatures declined by three degrees.”

Cotopaxi is located 48 kilometers south of Quito.

Big companies, online sales and social media influencers targeted by SRI
Ecuador’s Internal Revenue Service expects to collect an extra billion dollars in 2023 from online shopping services, social media influencers and citizens who keep unreported assets overseas. SRI Director Francisco Briones says that legal action to punish tax cheats will accompany the collections.

The SRI is also investigating businesses that took advantage of accounting confusion during the Covid-19 pandemic by not reporting all earnings, including special emergency taxes, Briones says.

“Our investigations show that hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money has been withheld from the government during the past two years,” Briones says. “We are looking into the accounts of 600 of the country’s largest enterprises and will begin collection and legal actions soon.”

He added that Ecuador suffers from a “poor tax culture” that encourages concealment of earnings and assets and the evasion of taxes. “We share the problem with most other Latin American countries, which denies funding to critical social needs and infrastructure.”

In total, the SRI reports that tax revenues increased 23% in 2022, as the country emerged from the Covid pandemic.