Cuenca’s new mayor lists crime, healthcare, informal vendors, parks and the Turi prison as top priorities
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series about plans Mayor-elect Cristian Zamora has for Cuenca.
By Stephen Vargha
Cuenca’s incoming Mayor, Cristian Zamora, has ambitious and progressive plans for the town he grew up in.
“I want to concentrate on security, health, government efficiency and services, and education,” said Zamora.
Zamora’s platform garnered 18.58 percent of the vote on February 5. Incumbent Mayor Pedro Palacios finished second with 17.48 percent, followed by Adrián Castro with 16.93 percent, and Paúl Carrasco at 16.77 percent. There was a total of nine candidates to be Cuenca’s mayor, contributing to Zamora’s victory having the lowest vote percentage ever.
The 42-year-old Cuencano won with a coalition of La Izquierda Democrática, a democratic socialist political party, and El Movimiento Verde Ético Revolucionario y Democrático (MOVER), a center-left political movement. He will become mayor on May 14.
“I won the rural areas by 12 points and lost the urban by three points,” said Zamora. “I attribute my big margin in the rural areas due to dedicating nine years of my life to knowing them and the reality of what life is like there.”
He feels that the rural areas have been ignored at the expense of the urban areas. “We need to redress our resources to help them,” said Zamora. “I know the necessities they need.”
The incoming mayor spent 45 minutes of his valuable time with CuencaHighLife last week to discuss his life, plans and thoughts for the Cuenca canton. In this two-part article, Zamora talked about the most pressing issues facing Cuenca.
“I was born and raised in Cuenca,” said Zamora, a father of two. “As a matter of fact, I have been living in the same house in El Centro, except for my time away to get my graduate degrees.”
After studying chemistry and industrial engineering, and graduating from the University of Cuenca, Zamora went to graduate school at EGADE Business School, in Monterrey, México, from 2009 to 2012. EGADE Business School is billed as “the most globalized school in Latin America.”
Zamora went on to get his doctorate degree in administrative services from the same university.
His education continued with Preparing for Global Leaders Training, at Georgetown University, and Knowledge-based Economy and City Competitiveness Training at the International Center for Land Policy Studies and Training, in Taipei, Taiwan.
“Upon returning to Cuenca, I started teaching at the University of Cuenca,” said Zamora. He taught Industrial Engineering and Chemical Engineering, including classes on Formulation and Evaluation of Projects, Organizational Strategies, and Entrepreneurship.
On top of that, Zamora and his wife formed the company, Mayas, which makes handmade tortillas and wheat dumplings. According to the company, the biggest grocery stores in the country carry their products.
This diverse background helped Zamora formulate what he thinks Cuenca needs to address, including security.
Cuenca’s security needs to address prostitution in the streets, unlicensed vendors, and CRS Turi,” said Zamora.
CRS Turi is the federal prison that opened in 2014 as a regional prison but has been transformed into a high security facility. Zamora claimed that most of the inmates are from the coast, who have connections with the illegal drug trade.
In 2021 and 2022, almost 60 inmates died at CRS Turi because of violent riots. Last year, Mayor Pedro Palacio told the media that “almost all of the deaths were related to gang violence coordinated from Guayaquil.” He added that the violence was ordered by gang leaders who had been brought to Turi.
“Turi was approved as a regional prison,” said Zamora. “I am going to make the government only accept prisoners from Azuay, Cañar, and Morona Santiago provinces, which was the original agreement.”
When pressed about a local government forcing the national government to abide by the original agreement, Zamora had a plan ready.
“We have soil rights around the prison,” said Zamora. “We will form a blockade with our police on that land to prevent receiving prisoners that are not from our area.”
He has no doubt there will be a confrontation when the blockade of the prison is enforced.
Crime in the city is a concern of Zamora. He has heard many say that the crime rate in Cuenca is better than in Guayaquil and Quito.
“We have to compare ourselves to where we were prior to the pandemic or to any other city that has a lower crime rate than Cuenca,” said Zamora. “We are more secure than cities in the United States, but more needs to be done.”
Zamora said response times for emergencies must be addressed. “I am proposing a system where all the police and fire departments are centralized and integrated,” said Zamora. “There needs to be a place like the United States where everyone is housed in one building.”
Though ECU 911 is part of Ecuador’s Ministry of Public Health, Zamora thinks that Cuenca’s emergency center needs to be integrated with the police and fire departments.
“We need to have a quicker response time from emergency departments,” said Zamora. “Because of the slow response times right now, people do not trust the authorities.”
The incoming mayor added that with quicker response times, they will know that someone will be coming to respond. “Hopefully the bad guys will think twice,” said Zamora.
Like many people, Zamora thinks the public health system needs to be addressed. “The public system is not running well, including Cuenca Municipal Hospital,” said Zamora.
He added that the outlying areas of the canton are currently underserved. “I am proposing to put three new medical facilities into the rural areas,” said Zamora.
Zamora is already looking for places to put the new facilities. His February 10 tweet said, “Together with Fabián Carrión, Pdte. From GAD El Valle, we visited several possible locations for the replica Hospital for Women and Children.”
Being a teacher at a university, Zamora is obviously concerned about education. “Of the people who finish high school, only one-fourth of them go on to a university,” said Zamora. “Like the United States, I want to have technological schools and community colleges for the other three-fourths.”
It has been said Cuenca has the highest amount of greenspace per capita in South America. By 2050, it is estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities, making green spaces even more important.
The health benefits of parks and green spaces in cities are numerous, and Zamora recognizes this. “I was president of the city council’s environmental committee,” said Zamora. “We need to protect sensitive areas. It is why Cuenca is about to approve a huge ring around the city of conservation areas to protect flora and fauna, the quality of the air, and to preserve our quality of water.”
This big preservation of land is called ACUS – Áreas de Conservación y Uso Sustentable, otherwise known as Conservation Areas of Sustainable Use. The council recently approved 18 hectares (44 acres) for three areas.
More important is the Yanuncay-Zhicay area. Cuenca is in the process of preserving 28,000 hectares (108 square miles) of land that surround the headwaters of the Yanuncay River and the Tarqui River. As an ally of the rural areas, Zamora feels this conservation of land will help protect the water for everyone living in that area as well as the city of Cuenca.
In his eyes, the Cuenca Botanical Garden is an asset to the city. And Zamora supports the second phase of the park.
“I think it is a good thing to expand the botanical park,” said Zamora. “It would support the studies of the environment. As a professor, I think we need to push this forward.”
Zamora concedes that money will be an issue, but he says everything that is proposed is a monetary concern.
Tomorrrow: Zamora will address his other plans and concerns, including public transportation and the possibility of Mariscal La Mar Airport being closed for at least 90 days.
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s new book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats. His blog, “Becoming Cuenca,” supplements his book with the latest information and at least a dozen photos of his in each of his posts.