Cuenca remained peaceful Thursday as a strike by national police turned violent in Guayaquil and Quito. Many Cuenca stores and banks closed for part of the day but local police remained on duty. Because of an airport closure in Quito, Cuenca’s airport was shut down for several hours.
The day’s highlight was last night’s Army rescue of President Rafael Correa from a police hospital in northern Quito. Earlier in the day, Correa had entered a crowd of protesting police near the hospital to discuss what he said was a misunderstanding about a new law that police claim cuts their benefits. After a tear gas canister exploded several feet from the him, the president was escorted to the nearby hospital where he remained, under police guard, until the rescue.
In a cell phone call to the media from the hospital, Correa said he was being held against his will and that a coup was underway. A spokesman for the administration said later that there was not a coup attempt, only “a terribly misguided action by renegade police.”
The spokesman added: “Obviously, it seemed like a coup to the president. He was being held as a prisoner and didn’t know what was going on.”
As the day's events unfolded it became clear that the police strike had little outside support. Ecuador's military commanders pledged their full backing of the government late in the morning.
Rafael Gonzales, a reporter for a Quito radio station who covered the day’s drama said that things would have turned out differently if it were not for Correa’s decision to walk into the crowd of police protesters. “That made a bad situation much worse. Otherwise, it would have been just another protest by public employees.”
In Cuenca's historic district, there was a late morning caravan of two or three dozen police trucks supporting the strike but, according to officials, all police returned to work before noon.
In the afternoon, several hundred University of Cuenca students marched to Calderon Park for a peaceful demonstration in support of the president. Police were on the scene, directing traffic around the gathering that grew to about 2,000 by 5:00 p.m.
Quito and Guayaquil bore the brunt of the protest, with most police abandoning their posts. All of the 88 injuries and five deaths reported during the day occurred in the two cities. Two policeman died in the shootout with the Army during the presidential rescue. Several stores were looted in Guayaquil and tires were burned on two highways leading out of town. In Quito, several groups of police demonstrators burned tires in several locations. Protesting police warned that without police protection crime would sky-rocket but government officials said last night that yesterday’s crime was average for the day.
Correa addressed a crowd of several thousand from the balcony of the Presidential Palace in Quito following his rescue and pledged a top to bottom investigation of the national police. “We will not negotiate with thugs,” Correa, 47, said. “Nothing will be forgiven and nothing will be forgotten,” he added at a second press conference.
According to radio reporter Gonzalez: “Things will return to normal in a couple of days. Unfortunately, the police squandered what little public support they had before the strike, so there will be a lot of negotiation going on in the next few days.”
Photo caption: University students march in support of the president at Calderon Park; credit: El Mercurio